Categorized | Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Health

Free fitness shapes South Bronx

A Shape Up student reads a fitness handout. Photo by: Catherine Pearson

A Shape Up student reads a free fitness brochure. Photo by: Catherine Pearson

On a blustery November morning, 12 middle aged women sat in a loose circle in a South Bronx dance studio, heaving dumbbells over their heads in unison, and then doing chair aerobics exercises while Motown hits blasted from a sound system.

“We do this because we love ourselves!” cheered their instructor, Kim Carr. Several of the women nodded, urging one another on.

They had come to the St. Mary’s Recreation Center in Hunts Point to get in shape, which for many is an uphill challenge.  The city’s Department of Health reports that  private gyms are rare in the South Bronx where nearly 40 percent of adults said they never exercise.

To help, the health agency partnered with the Parks Department to launch Shape Up New York, a citywide program providing free fitness and nutrition classes at park sites and community centers in neighborhoods with the highest rates of diet-related disease.

In many locations in Harlem, Brooklyn, and elsewhere in the Bronx, classes are led by volunteers from Shape, the glossy fitness magazine and Equinox, the pricey Manhattan gym.

But at St. Mary’s, most classes are led by Carr. Thanks to her popularity and the power of word of mouth, the center has among the highest Shape Up attendance rates in the city and an interest in fitness has begun to spread in the neighborhood.

“Normally we have at least 30 people in these classes—people just won’t stay away,” said Carr, herself a Bronxite who, lives near Yankee Stadium. “But you know,” she laughed, “it is hailing out right now.”

While other instructors bounce from center to center, Carr has taught at St. Mary’s for 14 years. She has built a dedicated following, attracting students from age six to 80, depending on the class.

“We try to make it like a family environment,” Carr said.

Many have been coming to Shape Up classes for years and some belong to the center, where an annual adult membership costs $75 per year.

But several students, like Michelle Genross, 52, are new recruits and come for the free Shape Up classes alone. After having been laid off as a secretary, Genross said she could no longer afford the $65 per month she paid to belong to the gym. Someone in her building told her about the program; now she comes two times a week.

“I’m a diabetic and things have been much better,” Genross said. “I only have to take insulin two times per week. And I’ve lost a dress size, too.”

She credits Carr’s classes for helping her change her eating habits.

“The energy you get in these classes—I’ve just been so inspired,” said Jacinta Lawson, 46, another student. “Now when I go home, I want to make sure I have good food to eat.”

But finding good produce and healthy snacks in the neighborhood can be tough.

“There’s a new BJ’s at the Gateway Center,” said Diana Fermin, who has been attending Carr’s classes for a month. “But locally we don’t have a lot of options at all. Sometimes I have to go into Manhattan to find something healthy.”

Carr knows the challenges her students face in finding fresh produce—as a Bronx resident, she faces them herself. Thus, if she finds a store locally that she likes, she tells them, and they do the same.

This, she says, is what makes the program really work. It’s people from the neighborhood helping one another out.

“It’s a great network,” Carr said of her students. “All year long, we help each other out.”

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