Staying fit is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic

President Trump is a prime example of people at risk for more severe complications.

People wear masks during a boxing class on Sept. 30, 2020, in New York City. Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis highlights the importance of fitness right now, even if people don't feel safe at the gym, writes Alex Rothstein. Noam Galai—Getty Images

COVID-19 is a terrifying wake-up call for out-of-shape Americans.

More than four in 10 U.S. adults are obese, and 60% have at least one chronic disease, putting them at high risk of serious COVID-19 complications—or worse. Individuals with chronic illnesses are 12 times more likely to die from the virus.

In light of President Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, the dangers of having any of those conditions have been thrust into the national spotlight. Trump is in a high-risk age group, clinically obese, and has “elevated” blood pressure—all of which puts him at risk for more severe complications.

For decades, health care professionals have cautioned people about the dangers of obesity. But those warnings have largely gone unheeded. Until recently, too many Americans viewed exercise as the ticket to a beach body—not the first line of defense against deadly diseases.

COVID-19 is finally changing that mistaken belief. Now, it’s incumbent upon health professionals to help Americans get in shape. Lives depend on it.

Everyone knows that exercise promotes good health. But many don’t understand just how important it really is.

Exercise increases blood flow throughout the body, meaning that more immune cells can circulate at a higher rate. Over time, that immune response builds up—with a measurable effect on health outcomes. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that among people who engaged in aerobic exercise five or more times per week, upper respiratory tract infection decreased by 40% over 12 weeks.

Staying active also reduces body fat and inflammation, which helps to fend off infections and prevent chronic conditions such as hypertension or heart disease. 

Due to extensive media coverage of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the chronically ill, Americans are starting to finally realize that staying fit isn’t just about looking good—it’s about strengthening the immune system and staving off serious health problems.

Fortunately, the fitness industry is trying to accommodate this mass awakening.

Many gyms moved fitness classes outdoors and online for the first time, in response to social distancing and statewide lockdowns. Organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine have actively campaigned for the health benefits of physical activity in the midst of the pandemic—specifically calling for outdoor fitness resources in disadvantaged communities. 

Further transforming Americans’ relationship with exercise—and making it a critical component of their health and wellness plans—will also require the help of exercise science professionals. These individuals are trained to develop individualized wellness programs that consider people’s age, health, culture, and other factors that influence their ability to maintain a healthy routine. 

Consider someone at risk of developing high blood pressure; they may know they need more exercise, but have no idea where to start. An exercise science professional can help set realistic and achievable goals—something as simple as a short morning walk. That person can then build on those smaller activities and develop longer-term habits that incorporate more vigorous exercise into their routine.

Or take someone who already has an illness. Exercise science experts can educate chronic disease patients about the ways physical activity can help manage their conditions—from reducing the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis to increasing insulin sensitivity for diabetics. 

These professionals can also adjust their methods based on clients’ individual comfort levels. Many Americans still don’t feel safe entering brick-and-mortar gyms—and it’s unclear if they’ll ever want to return. In response, exercise science professionals can build out other innovative tools and training models, such as remote platforms and outdoor workout settings. 

COVID-19 has disrupted our society. But it has also created an opportunity to improve our country’s health—by transforming exercise into the primary weapon in our fight against disease.

Alex Rothstein is an instructor and program coordinator for the exercise science degree program at New York Institute of Technology.

More opinion from Fortune: