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Wednesday
Aug042010

A Role Model for the Health and Fitness Industry

By Mia Coen

 In a recent blog post called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Fitness,” I noted an NPR story about Healthworks at Codman Square, a nonprofit facility in one of Boston’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. I wrote about how this gym was successful in transforming the lives of women and children and about how the facility plays a major role in the Dorchester community.

After rolling the thought over for a while, I concluded that this was no ordinary gym, and that I should investigate it further. So, last week, I met with Lauren Broadhurst, executive director of Healthworks at Codman, which opened a year and a half ago. I was greeted with a warm smile and a handshake, and then we took a tour!

The first thing I noticed is that it still looks brand new. The floors were shiny and spotless, the Life Fitness equipment was consistent and clean, and the locker rooms were dazzling with dark wooden lockers with make-your-own-combination locks. In fact, it reminded me of the upscale club up the street from my office.

The second thing I noticed, and which struck me as the most impressive, was the space allocated for a teaching kitchen, designed for classes in nutritious cooking and healthy eating. Soon, free classes will be open to members to learn about how to prepare meals that satisfy an appetite, as well as dietary requirements. ‘Such a novel and practicable idea!

Just beyond the teaching space, Lauren pointed out a wall with a decorated tree on it. “This is where people post success stories and words of encouragement,“ she said. I noticed a post that congratulated a member who’d lost 80 pounds. How remarkable!

“Over here is the volunteer appreciation board,” Lauren continued. “Because, like many non-profits, we’re working with a limited budget, this club relies on volunteers for additional support. If it weren’t for our volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to operate as well as we do. So they’re very important and we try to show our appreciation.” In addition to a laminated award certificate, words of thanks and encouragement glowed in colorful ink all over the white board. Everything from cleaning to childcare is a volunteer effort.

We continued on to the bright and shiny Youth Fitness Zone, which had, not one, but two interactive Sportwalls serving as goal posts for exer-gaming and plenty of room to accommodate large groups of kids. After moseying on through the sizeable cardio and strength-training space, we arrived at the group exercise studio, which was over 2,000 square feet! The room had lots of different equipment, including core-boards, aerobic steps, exercise balls, yoga blocks, and mats.

In the next room was a nursery, a small room decorated in colorful drawings and “kid art” where free childcare is offered during the morning and evening “rush” hours, so struggling moms can get in a workout before or after work.

Women of all shapes and sizes were using the cardio machines, strength training machines, or freshening up in the locker room. Everywhere we went, Lauren and I were greeted with smiles and waves.

But Healthworks at Codman is more than aesthetically pleasing. The building shares its facility with the community and provides other important social services in addition to fitness, such as a weekly food pantry, opportunities for adult education, computer literacy and training, credit counseling, as well as  youth programming, to name a few. Members at Healthworks at Codman are welcome and encouraged to utilize all the resources in the building, run by Dotwell, the Healthworks Foundation’s social service partner organization. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, Healthworks at Codman members pay a fee based on their income—and no member pays more than $30 per month.

But you’re thinking, how is this possible financially?

Lauren explained to me that Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women began in the 1970s as a high-end chain of women-only gyms. In the late 1990s, Mark Harrington, the owner, established the Healthworks Foundation with a mission to empower women in disadvantaged communities through fitness and wellness. Healthworks at St. Mary’s opened in 2002 as the first nonprofit Healthworks gym in Dorchester, Massachusetts, serving the St. Mary’s Women and Children’s Center, which provides shelter to homeless and low-income women, pregnant teens, and young mothers. Money from the Foundation, primarily comprised of contributions from the for-profit Healthworks clubs, support operations for this facility.

A year and a half ago, the facility in Codman Square in Dorchester opened, which is nearly triple the size of the St. Mary’s location.  It was established through a partnership with the Codman Square Health Center and represents a new model in the fitness industry.  Healthworks at Codman works directly with partner community health centers, including the Codman Square Health Center and the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, and their medical providers, to support patient health and chronic disease prevention and treatment. In fact, doctors from those health centers can prescribe exercise to their patients to treat obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, or depression (or a combination thereof) and Healthworks at Codman will provide them with a free three-month membership.

With all business-talk aside, it’s pretty incredible that a for-profit gym is turning around and sending its extra cash flow back into the community by opening gyms like Healthworks at Codman and Healthworks at St. Mary’s.  The facilities have provided women and children with so much—serving as a safe place to exercise, play, and get healthy—that it seems, at least to me, that these gyms are slowly transforming the Dorchester community by offering invaluable resources and opportunities for better wellness.

However, there are thousands of communities like this all over the country—communities where fast food eateries are more common than supermarkets or produce markets, where gyms do not exist because of crime, traffic, and overcrowding, where drugs and alcohol are pervasive, where educational opportunities and wellness screenings are practically non-existent, etc.

On my way out, as I drove away from the facility, I stopped to let a young woman cross the street. I saw the bag of fast food in her hand and wondered if she’d be attending the classes on nutrition at Healthworks at Codman. I wondered whether or not that bag of food was going to feed her kids or family tonight. It made me question the idea of wellness: Is it a privilege? Or a right? I couldn’t help but think, “Healthworks at Codman is exactly where it needs to be because the people here need it the most.”

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