Search “gym,” and “tanning,” on any social media app, and photos will pop up — photos of people in workout gear inside tanning beds, next to them, all touting the healthy glow they got after their workout.
Though the link between deadly skin cancer like melanoma and using tanning beds is well established, there’s a persisting myth that tanning using one of these beds is healthy. And new research shows gyms might be monetizing that myth, offering a potential deadly benefit to gym members.
The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Society, looked at locations affiliated with the three largest gyms in the country: Planet Fitness, Gold’s Gym and Anytime Fitness. Sherry Pagoto, lead author and a professor at the University of Connecticut, said gyms recruit new members using tanning booths as an added perk. And consumers take advantage of that perk.
“Because, ‘why would my gym give me something that was unhealthy?’” Pagoto said. “You wouldn’t find a cigarette machine in a gym; that would be really bizarre and I think people would be outraged. But tanning beds have been ranked as the same level of carcinogen as cigarette.”
Just one tanning bed session increases a person’s chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent compared to someone who has never indoor tanned. And people who use tanning beds 10 or more times have a 34 percent increased chance of melanoma, compared with people who have never had that same exposure.
Pagoto and her team called 1,927 gyms across 33 states, including Kentucky. Of those, 1,347 of them had at least one tanning bed, or 78 percent. Sixty-five percent of Anytime Fitness locations had tanning beds, while 41 percent of Gold’s Gym locations had them. Almost all of Planet Fitness gyms had at least one tanning bed. In Florence, Kentucky, one Planet Fitness had 12 beds.
Laura Brinson with the Northern Kentucky Health Department in Florence, wouldn’t comment directly on the presence of tanning beds in that location. However, she said the science is clear that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from indoor tanning can cause skin cancer.
“It is not safe, however, this risk is avoidable,” Brinson said. “Unfortunately, some people continue to indoor tan, indicating that continued efforts are needed to educate everyone about the damage that indoor tanning can cause to the skin.”
But Planet Fitness markets its tanning beds in certain memberships, in addition to discounts for shoe brands, fitness drinks and access to different locations.
“You should feel confident in your body after sticking with your gym routine! If you want to show off your results a little more, opt for a session in one of our tanning beds,” membership materials online read.
One of Planet Fitness’ top franchise owners is Rick Kueber, who co-founded Sun Tan City, the Elizabethtown, Ky.-based chain of indoor tanning facilities.
Pagoto noted that the Affordable Care Act created a 10 percent tax on tanning salons. But gyms are exempt from the tax.
“That tanning tax would not affect gyms, it only affects tanning salons; so as long as businesses where their primary business is something else, they can circumvent the tanning tax,” Pagoto said. “What we might be seeing is sort of a shift in tanning to other types of businesses, and I would say gyms are the number one other business that’s picking up tanning beds.”
Pagoto said including tanning beds in gym memberships or at the gym in general give consumers the wrong message.
“The gyms see that there’s an opportunity to provide tanning to the folks who go to their gyms because those people are trying to improve their physical appearance; And a big reason why people tan is because they have concerns around their physical appearance and they believe that tanning makes them look better,” Pagoto said. “The irony is that tanning, you might feel like it improves your physical appearance in the short term, but it actually in the long term, it’s going to be detrimental because it will result in premature aging of your skin.”
Planet Fitness faced legal action by the New York Attorney General in 2015, and eventually settled; New York Planet Fitness locations no longer use “unlimited” or “free” to advertise tanning services inside gyms.