Throughout the summer, the Ridgewood YMCA in Queens partnered with a local neighborhood organization to provide free fitness classes at Rosemary’s Playground, a concrete park near the elevated M-train tracks in Ridgewood. Every Monday morning, I led group exercise classes for a diverse crew of neighborhood residents, most of whom did not belong to a gym.
Before class, I approached all the adults in the park and invited them to join the exercise class with their families. Many people seemed apprehensive but decided to try the class out. Several of them returned each week, often accompanied by additional family members. Our regular attendees included a woman and her teenage son, two crossing guards on a break from work, whole families with several small children and a young mother who slung her infant son onto her back for more challenging pushups.
The classes were successful at reaching community members because we met people where they were at, both literally (at the park) and metaphorically (the other instructors and I offered modified exercises to suit each participant’s level of fitness in a comfortable environment accompanied by his or her support system). The experience got me thinking about how for-profit gyms can better serve their communities ― and recruit new members ― by addressing obesity and promoting exercise beyond their facilities’ walls.
These gyms should partner with social service providers and community-based organizations to promote preventive health programs for individuals in low-income communities. Specifically, the gyms should send their trainers and group exercise instructors on what I call “Fitness House Calls.” The professional trainers would provide personal training sessions and lead exercise classes at the social service sites to address obesity and related health problems. Meanwhile, the gyms could use the programs as a tool for recruiting new paying members.
Supportive housing residences, homeless shelters and senior citizen centers are all prime locations for such collaboration because these buildings typically feature large community rooms and host populations who experience disproportionate rates of preventable health problems related to poverty, obesity and aging. The Fitness House Calls would fulfill a vital preventive health service, build community and further invest in neighborhoods. The programs would also groom future gym members, thus benefiting the gyms financially.
Several gym franchises have recently set up shop in Harlem, which is home to high rates of poverty, obesity and related chronic illnesses such as diabetes. A three-block stretch of West 125th Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Lenox Avenue now features a Blink, a New York Sports Club and two Planet Fitness facilities.
Although these gyms offer relatively low monthly membership fees, significant barriers to participation remain for low-income individuals, including those connected to supportive housing and other social service providers. A site-based fitness program like Fitness House Calls would enable individuals to overcome these barriers and influence more people to pay for gym memberships in the future.
Here are three issues the site-based fitness programs would overcome:
First, the cost and inconvenience of transportation often inhibits individuals with limited incomes from joining a gym. Clearly, site-based programs would enable them to exercise without additional travel.
Second, members of many gym franchises, such as Planet Fitness, must grant the company access to their checking account for monthly deductions in addition to a one-time annual membership fee. Unfortunately, many low-income individuals remain ‘unbanked’ and instead rely on prepaid debit cards and check-cashing locations. Individuals who do have a checking account must maintain an amount equal to the membership fee in their account or risk overdraft fees whenever the gym attempts to deduct payment. An individual forced to cover an emergency expense like a medical co-pay or loan to a family member would incur significant overdraft fees. A site-based program would free them from that financial risk.
But those financial issues do not prohibit someone from joining a gym. Individuals with limited incomes, especially those with fixed incomes, must discern worthy expenditures from wasteful. An affordable gym membership can certainly be a worthy expenditure if the individual actually commits to going and getting healthier. Someone who has a positive experience as a participant in the site-based fitness program would be more inclined to sign up for a gym membership because he or she has already initiated that commitment to improved health.
A lack of exercise experience and attending uncertainty affects anyone who considers joining a gym. Thus, the third barrier is a familiar one: A gym is a challenging, intimidating place for anyone who has little prior exercise experience or knowledge. Fitness House Calls would enable individuals to build relationships with fitness professionals and to learn appropriate workout routines to help them bypass the mental obstacles that prevent them from working out in a gym.
Fitness House Calls would enable gyms to better serve and assimilate into their communities. If social responsibility is not enough, then gyms should consider the future financial benefits. As our summer program wound down, two participants told me they had joined the Y with their families so that they could continue exercising.