Tanning Beds in Health Clubs:
A Common Contradiction

Diana Phillips

December 26, 2019

Despite the known dangers of tanning, major fitness chains across the country continue to include tanning beds among their amenities, a study found. Researchers analyzed nearly 2000 locations of three large national gym chains in the US, and found that more than three quarters of them had tanning beds.

Sherry L. Pagoto, PhD, of the University of Connecticut Center for Health and Social Media in Storrs, and colleagues published their findings in a research letter published December 20 in JAMA Network Open.

The findings suggest that these and all fitness centers that offer tanning services may be prioritizing marketing over members' health and well-being, according to Pagoto. "Previous research has established a link between physical activity and indoor tanning. I suspect this may be because both exercise and tanning can be motivated by physical appearance concerns," she told Medscape Medical News. "Related, some groups of exercisers, like body builders, dancers, and cheerleaders use tanning before they compete. I would guess these are some of the reasons gyms are trying to attract consumers with tanning beds."

It's possible that this population of consumers is already overexposed to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays compared with the general population, so it's especially important that they understand tanning — indoor or outdoor — is not a healthy behavior, Pagoto continued, explaining that research has demonstrated a link between physical activity and melanoma risk. "People who are active likely spend more time outside and are already getting more UV exposure as a result. Sun protection is important for this reason as is avoiding the tanning bed," she stressed.

The researchers examined three popular national gym chains to determine the proportion of their facilities that have tanning beds, the number of tanning beds offered, and regional differences in tanning bed prevalence. To this end, they sampled all locations of Anytime Fitness, Gold's Gym, and Planet Fitness across the five geographic regions of the country and contacted each gym to inquire about the tanning services they offered.

Of the 1727 gyms contacted, 1347 (78%) had a total of 4660 tanning beds. A comparison by fitness chain showed that Planet Fitness gyms had the highest proportion of tanning beds (99%), followed by Anytime Fitness (65%), and Gold's Gym (41%). Planet Fitness also provided more tanning beds (3736) than Anytime Fitness (798) and Gold's Gym (126).

The regional comparison indicated that the Midwest had the highest proportion of gyms with tanning beds (87% [446 of 514]; P < .001), the authors report.

One factor that potentially contributes to the high prevalence and uptake of tanning beds in gyms is the fact that fitness centers can circumvent the federal 10% tanning tax by including tanning services in their membership plans rather than charging per visit, the authors note.

"Gyms that offer tanning services may be perpetuating the notion that tanning is part of a healthy lifestyle, which undermines public health warnings about the dangers of indoor tanning," the authors write. Given the high prevalence of tanning beds in large fitness chains and the known health risks associated with tanning, "clinicians should counsel patients who use gyms to avoid tanning beds," they stress.

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Network Open. Published online December 20, 2019. Full text

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