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Gyms entice new members with tanning beds, despite the known cancer risks

REUTERS/Nir Elias
A single indoor tanning exposure raises the risk of melanoma by about 20 percent, and each additional session during the same year increases the risk by about 2 percent.

About a quarter of people who have ever used a tanning bed have done so in a gym, according to a study published recently in the journal JAMA Dermatology.

The study also found that gym tanners spend more time in tanning beds than other tanners — and are also more likely to report a tanning dependency. 

These findings are troubling. Tanning is an established risk factor for skin cancer, including melanoma, the most deadly form of the disease. More than 178,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2018, and more than 9,000 will die of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Minnesota has one of the highest melanoma incidence rates in the country.

A single indoor tanning exposure raises the risk of melanoma by about 20 percent, and each additional session during the same year increases the risk by about 2 percent.

As I’ve reported here before, melanoma is now the most frequently diagnosed cancer among young adults aged 25 to 29 and the second most frequently diagnosed cancer among young people aged 15 to 29. Tragically, it’s also the leading cause of cancer death in women aged 25 to 30 and the second-leading cause of cancer death in women aged 30 to 35.

Young women are frequent users of gyms.

A lot of tanning beds

Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, says she decided to conduct the JAMA Dermatology study after she began looking into the kinds of promotions gyms used to sign up new members. 

She discovered that one of the enticements offered by gyms was access to tanning beds.

That worried her. As Pagoto explains in an article she wrote about the research for The Conversation, “We would be astounded if gyms provided tobacco to patrons, so we must pose serious questions to gyms who provide ultraviolet radiation. 

“The comparison of tobacco and tanning beds might seem like hyperbole, but it is not. They are both rated group 1 carcinogens and research shows that we now have more cancers related to tanning beds than cancers related to tobacco.” 

Pagoto was also concerned about gyms offering tanning beds to members because of recent research that has shown that people who are more physically active in their leisure time are at a higher risk of melanoma.

Pagoto had a research assistant call every Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness and Gold’s Gym (three major chains) in Connecticut and Massachusetts to find out exactly how many had tanning beds.  Two thirds (66 percent) of those 167 gyms said they did have tanning beds, including 100 percent of Planet Fitness gyms. The total number of beds added up to 408.

“Extrapolating this to all 50 states would mean that these three gym chains alone house over 10,000 tanning beds nationwide,” Pagoto points out. “That’s an equivalent capacity to 1,600 tanning salons. The tanning industry must be thrilled.”

Hard-core tanners

Pagoto then decided to find out more about the people who were using tanning beds in gyms. She surveyed a nationally representative sample of 636 people who had tanned indoors at least once, asking them questions about where and how often they tanned, as well as about their exercise habits.

About a quarter of the respondents said they had used a gym tanning bed.

“When I compared the group who had tanned in a gym to the group who had not, I was surprised to find that the gym tanner is a much harder core tanner,” Pagoto says. “They hit the tanning bed 67 percent more often than other salon tanners and were far more likely to report tanning addiction. Gyms seem to be a great place for tanners to get their fix.” 

Indeed, half of the gym tanners were at risk of developing a tanning dependency

“We also found in our sample of tanners that more tanning was associated with more exercise,” Pagoto  adds. “Now we may be onto why gyms provide tanning beds — people who tan a lot love to workout.”

Pagoto doesn’t know why tanning and exercise are linked, but she believes it’s probably because individuals believe both activities will help them look and feel better.

And many gyms bolster the dangerous misconception that tanning is healthy. 

“Gyms that provide tanning beds reinforce the idea that tanning is part of a beauty regimen, and perhaps even worse, that tanning is part of a healthy lifestyle,” writes Pagoto. “Tanning is part of neither. It will destroy your skin and has the potential to completely destroy your health.”

Undermining public health efforts

This study has limitations, of course. Most notably, a relatively small number of people were surveyed, so the study’s findings might not reflect the tanning behavior of the broader U.S. population.

Still, the fact that tanning beds are still offered in such a large percentage of gyms — places where people go to become healthier — is disturbing.

“Gyms should not provide tanning beds to patrons,” says Pagoto. “Removing tanning beds from gyms surely won’t stop everybody from tanning, but that is certainly no argument for making them convenient for people at higher than average risk of melanoma.”

“By pairing exercise with tanning beds, gyms undermine public health messaging and contribute to the cancer risk of their patrons,” she adds. “If you are joining a gym to get healthy, my advice is: pick one that has your back.”

FMI: You’ll find Pagoto’s study on the JAMA Pediatrics website, and her article about the research at The Conversation.

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