Spotlight Non-profit: Unique program makes gym membership affordable for low-income women


LatinaLista — One of the surest ways for overweight people to start losing weight is to join a gym. Where else is there ready access to fitness equipment, professional guidance and emotional support?

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But gym memberships can be costly, especially for the low-income. And unfortunately, it’s the low-income population that has the highest rates of obesity because they usually live in areas that are classified as “food deserts,” no grocery store within easy access and live in high-crime areas where walking in the neighborhood is not considered a safe activity.

Healthworks, a female fitness club in the greater Boston area, saw that a large portion of the communities they served weren’t being served. They realized it was the women who could least afford a membership and least afford not joining.

So in 2002, the Healthworks Foundation opened the first of two free, non-profit fitness centers for homeless and low-income women in Dorcester. In 2008, they opened a second one at Codman Square. Both centers are helped in part by the memberships from their regular for-profit gyms. Membership fees are based on income, and the most anyone pays is $30.

In addition to providing the equipment and professional staff, the non-profit fitness centers also offer a teaching kitchen so that members can learn how to cook and eat healthily. The centers also provide free memberships to patients prescribed exercise to treat chronic diseases including type-2 diabetes, hypertension, mood disorders, and obesity.

Because it’s a non-profit, both exercise facilities rely on donations and the contributions of volunteers to fill roles ranging from front desk receptionists to nutritionists.

In the few years the centers have been open, success stories are being documented.

Lucy’s story: “I recently moved to America to get a new start. I needed to escape from my life and protect my children – I was trapped in an abusive relationship and I knew I needed to help myself. In June, I entered a domestic violence shelter in the area and I began the healing process.

I was encouraged by my advocate at the domestic violence shelter to visit and join the Foundation Fitness Center. She even came with me to sign up for a membership and my orientation. I was excited but apprehensive. I really want to be fit, but I was nervous about being able to really see a change in my body or to lose weight.

The day I came into the gym I joined and had my orientation. I began that very day as a member. I think the staff could tell that I wasn’t feeling really confident about getting started. So, instead of letting me leave and never coming back, they started on that very day, and since then, I have been able to stick to it!

The gym gives me an emotional breath of fresh air. I am not getting too much support elsewhere but step-by-step doing my own footwork to get my life in order. I know when we are back on our feet again (my 2 boys and I), I will have God to thank. It is a struggle, I’ll honestly say to get myself to the center but after my workout, I feel absolutely on top of the world physically and emotionally. When I walk out of the Center’s door I can face what this world has to give me.

Since I joined Healthworks at St. Mary’s, I have been doing cardio and lifting. I even met with the new nutrition intern and spoke with him about my concerns and needs. Already I’ve begun some small but necessary changes.