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This gym banned news channels from its TVs to ease anxiety. Then came the uproar

Blue Cross is offering its Medicare Advantage members a free gym membership at any of 458 participating health clubs across North Carolina.
Blue Cross is offering its Medicare Advantage members a free gym membership at any of 458 participating health clubs across North Carolina. Los Angeles Times file

The UNC Wellness Center always has drawn an informed crowd to its Meadowmont gym — members who enjoy an update on global trade or Mideast talks during their step machine workouts.

For years, the gym positioned its television sets so that MSNBC aired on the left and Fox News on the right, a design strategy appreciated by the sweaty professors and shorts-wearing doctors watching while they worked out.

But in May, those well-read fitness nuts got a shock some considered worse than 10 extra pounds: The gym stopped airing all news channels in the fitness center in an effort of creating a healthier mindset.

"We have decided to remove a source of stress from our facilities," read an announcement in a newsletter sent to members. "This source creates division and promotes feelings of anxiety, stress and negativity, and in many cases has taken away from the real focus of why we are here."

After a few weeks, this decision has so riled the Meadowmont membership, or at least its most vocal component, that anxiety and negativity have cropped up in new abundance.

Kevin Leibel, a gym member for eight years, compared the UNC Wellness decision to censorship, noting that adults, especially highly educated adults, don't need management parsing what they can and can't watch.

"I come in and I want to catch up on the news," said Leibel, a Chapel Hill management consultant. "I would watch Fox and CNN at the same time, kind of comparing and contrasting. Now, the joke is, if I come in on a Saturday, I'm going to see the advertorials. I think the last one was for a vacuum cleaner that had some properties that made it suck better. I've seen the Hair Club for Men. Unfortunately, I have a lot of hair. It's not really interesting to me."

The original idea behind the move was to reduce "increasingly frequent and boisterous" arguments over channels among members and to protect staff, said Alan Wolf, spokesman for UNC Health Care, which operates the gyms.

But members' well-being also factored into their thinking. In January, Life Time Fitness, with gyms across the country, announced a similar news ban.

"Being bombarded with political news that's stressful cannot be the healthiest thing when you're trying to focus on health and wellness," Wolf said.

UNC Wellness Centers have two locations, one in the Meadowmont section of Chapel Hill and the other in northwest Cary. Its email about the news boasted 13,000 members at all facilities, or roughly 3,000 a day.

Friday afternoon, Wolf said UNC Wellness Centers is evaluating the decision about the news channels. When buying new equipment, he added, they will consider machines with individual screens.

Members opposing the move said they resent the decision was made without consulting members, even through an informal survey. The announcement, they said, arrived in an email that many missed because it was about multiple subjects, with the news ban appearing far from the top.

The announcement noted that members are evenly split on removing news programs. But in a lengthy letter of objection, gym member Holland West expressed doubt about the percentage of supporters and challenged the wellness center to release its data.

"The answer is not to remove and dictate choices and treat members as children," he wrote, "unless the Center is going to reduce the membership fees as well as make itself less desirable and competitive."

Membership, Leibel said, runs between $50 and $60 a month.

In West's letter, he noted that acceptable programming consists of soap operas, game shows, shopping shows, cooking shows and infomercials. On a recent weekday, he said, the four screens near his exercise machine displayed an outdated soccer game, an outdated lacrosse game, women's weightlifting and an hour-long hair-loss commercial.

He described programming as "mind-numbing" and "fluff."

"It's laughable if it wasn't such a serious issue," West wrote. "I'd suggest the National Geographic network, but you'd likely object since its programming might include global warming segments or commentary."

Stay tuned.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08
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