Chuck Runyon wants the state Legislature to play a role in improving Minnesotans' fitness.

The CEO of Anytime Fitness is working with leaders of Life Time Fitness, Snap Fitness and the YMCA to promote a "get fit" bill that would use tax incentives to cover fitness club dues and other "wellness services" to help get Minnesotans moving.

Exercise, they say, is medicine.

The effort goes by the name FitMN, and it relies on sobering statistics: 63 percent of Minnesotans are overweight or obese. Almost 18 percent are physically inactive. Nearly 50 percent of obesity-related medical costs are paid for by taxpayers through Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the state's low-income citizens.

Runyon, the co-founder of Hastings-based Anytime Fitness, discussed the group's aims:

QWhy should the Legislature get involved in a fitness effort?

AMoney changes behavior faster than education. That may sound shallow, but it's true. We tried for decades to get people to reduce smoking and never really moved the needle. Once severe penalties came, big tax increases on cigarettes, behavior changed. Smoking is at an all-time low of 20 percent nationwide, and in Minnesota it's something like 15 percent. It didn't happen until we got serious with the financial sticks.

We think physical activity is the key to reversing this unhealthy tipping point. We're looking to pass healthy legislation that offers an incentive for physical activity for employers or individuals.

QWhat exists now, and what are you proposing?

ARight now, a larger corporation can use pretax dollars to put in on-site fitness centers. We're just trying to level the playing field so that every employer in the state of Minnesota has the same type of pretax option to get their employers active and reward their behavior. We want to reward individuals or families to be active as well by giving them a $500 or $1,000 deduction from their income tax.

QSome of Minnesota's health plans already provide incentives for health club membership. Isn't that enough?

AMinnesota insurers are reimbursing based on 12 times of usage; it used to be eight. They are seeing benefits. People on reimbursement programs use fitness clubs three times more and renew 50 percent more often. On the employer side, we're seeing more large employers, typically self-funded, investing in their own wellness programs. We hope it trickles down to small- and medium-sized business, but sometimes it's just a matter of resources. This type of legislation gives that small- to medium-sized business a fairer resource that allows them to have the same advantages of a big company.

QI get it. Too many Minnesotans are overweight, and exercise helps people lose weight, get healthy and lower health care costs. But a cynic might say that this effort is pretty self-serving to help fitness centers get more members.

AIt appears that way and obviously will benefit us. Physical inactivity is a problem. There's not much argument there. Who better to fix that than the health and fitness industry? We'd entertain any kind of activity that legislators want to consider. There are more and more community events [5Ks and other road races, bike rides, children's sporting events, etc.] that employees are asking to be paid for. It does not need to be just health club membership.

I know it's self-serving. But at the end of the day, we really want to solve this issue of inactivity and obesity.

QHow did this coalition come together?

AI served on the board of directors of IHRSA, the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association, at the tip of the spear for trying to defend or promote the industry on Capitol Hill. After two years of doing that I realized it is very, very difficult to get something done in Washington. So our best strategy is to find a state that can be a model where we can get something passed to show a difference and then hopefully other states will follow, in a domino effect.

What better state than Minnesota where we have the headquarters of Snap, Life Time, Anytime Fitness and a big presence of YMCAs. There really is no better state with the economic influence, member base and a culture of wellness that Minnesota has.

QWhat about those who might say that eating well and exercising is a personal responsibility issue -- in other words, get the government out of my exercise routine.

AIn a perfect world, sure. You need carrots and sticks to steer the habits of society. All we're doing is providing an incentive for people to do it. It's just giving people a nudge. We're not "nannying" someone; we're not looking over their shoulder. We're saying, "Look. If you do it, you get rewarded for it." And we think it's important because it benefits everybody.

If you look at the $200 billion that we're projected to spend on obesity-related health issues, 75 percent of that is preventable. There is really no financial penalty of being inactive or obese. When you think of all the costs we share, employer and individual, we're all paying for it. There are broader costs as well. Research shows that inactive communities have lower academic scores, higher crime, more sexual abuse, drug addiction -- that affects all of us.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335