Innovative Gym Empowers Women and Children to Get Fit

By Ashley Carter

Healthworks Community Fitness at Codman, located in Dorchester, MA, offers everything any state-of-the-art fitness facility would offer: Zumba, yoga, and boot camp, TVs on the treadmills, nutrition counseling, and clean, well-designed locker rooms.  The fitness programs for kids use high-tech Interactive Sportwalls and Exerdance.

But members of this women-only fitness center, open since 2008, are not paying exorbitant prices for these services.  In fact, many of them pay only $10 a month. Memberships for the non-profit gym are subsidized by the for-profit Healthworks Fitness Centers, which has five gyms exclusively for women around Boston. “According to our research,” said Lauren Broadhurst, Executive Director for the non-profit arm Healthworks Community Fitness, “we are the only full-service fitness facility for low-income women and children in the country.”

The mission of Healthworks Community Fitness is to empower, promote health, and prevent disease among low-income women and children by providing fitness opportunities and wellness education.  According to Broadhurst, “the goal is not to get women to focus on losing weight- on a specific number of pounds- but to focus on taking care of their bodies and feeling good about themselves.”  This mentality helps build confidence, community, and a sense of empowerment among women struggling with mental illness, diabetes, obesity, and limited financial means.  Broadhurst says that she has seen drastic changes in many of these women’s attitudes and lives.

Healthworks has taken novel steps to increase gym access to low-income women.  For example, doctors from the Codman Square Health Center can “prescribe” a fitness plan and membership to Healthworks at Codman as part of medical treatment.  Women with a prescription are given free 3-month memberships.  A second gym run by Healthworks Community Fitness is located inside the St. Mary’s homeless shelter for women and children in Dorchester.  Memberships at St. Mary’s are free, since the gym exclusively serves women in shelters who fall below a certain income level or receive government assistance.

The fitness centers have had great success in accomplishing the Healthworks mission. “I feel absolutely on top of the world physically and emotionally,” said Lucy, a member of Healthworks at St. Mary’s since 2002.  “I can face what the world has to give me.”

Healthworks at Codman is constantly trying to expand, to raise awareness in the community about its programs and grow its membership.  “Exercise is a tough sell, especially to a non-conditioned community,” Broadhurst said, referring to the diverse community of Dorchester, where access to physical activity is limited by a lack of safe outdoor space and affordable fitness centers.   “We rely on word-of-mouth, since our budget does not allow for much advertising.”

The gym is also expanding the nutrition-related services it offers.  Plans are underway to build a teaching kitchen, where fitness center and community members alike can learn about and practice healthy cooking and eating.

In addition, the gym is working with an organization right here at Tufts.  Tufts Outreach Nutrition Education (TONE) was started in 2010 by a group of Tufts medical students to provide free nutrition counseling to underserved members of the Boston community.  They currently work at Tufts’ Sharewood Free Clinic in Malden, the Wang YMCA, and Healthworks at Codman.  TONE also focuses on pediatric interests, collaborating with groups like Jumbo’s Kitchen to help facilitate child activity programming.

Last year, TONE was able to provide nutrition counseling services to Healthworks at Codman members five nights a week, on alternating weeks.  “This year, we are hoping to have people there every week,” said Tufts medical student, Kelly Arnett, who is the TONE coordinator for Healthworks at Codman.  This is in an effort to reach out to more of the gym’s members, who can be hard to entice. “Sometimes women don’t show up for their appointments, or you have to actively approach women and ask if they would like to talk about nutrition.”

But in general, Arnett feels that TONE’s presence has been beneficial and that most women are excited to learn about nutrition.  “Some women just want to come over and talk, to say, ‘I’m frustrated because I don’t know how to eat better and I don’t know how to get my kids to eat better’,” said Arnett.  TONE volunteers ask questions about women’s diets, what they think they do well health-wise, and what they think they can improve upon.  Then they offer basic nutrition advice that is digestible to women with limited time and resources to make large changes in their eating habits.  Women are given healthy eating brochures to help them shop, cook, and eat better.

“TONE is a terrific program and an extremely valuable resource for our members,” Broadhurst commented, “though we are still working to create an effective system to ensure TONE is more widely and regularly utilized.”

This coming year, TONE is hoping to expand its volunteer base and collaborate with the Friedman community to take advantage of the skills and knowledge of Friedman students.  They will be holding a meeting later in the fall and will host a training early in the spring semester.  TONE volunteers are trained in basic nutrition science and motivational counseling.  More information will be available in the coming weeks.  For information about internship opportunities available with Healthworks Community Fitness or other ways to get involved, contact Lauren Broadhurst at lbroadhurst@healthworkscommunityfitness.org.

Coming up, Friedman students can support Healthworks Community Fitness at a Zumba Party fundraiser on October 24th at Ned Devine’s.  Healthworks Zumba instructors will lead a Zumba-thon from 6:30pm to 8:30pm for anyone who loves Zumba and cares about the health and well being of low-income women and children.  Don’t worry if you don’t have experience.  Just grab a few friends and make it a fun night of getting sweaty while supporting a great organization!

The gym is also hosting an all-day open house on October 27th to celebrate its 3rd anniversary.  They will be offering free exercise classes, workouts, and nutritional counseling to community members and children.  TONE will have a table at the event, if anyone is interested in helping out.  And in an effort to recognize and promote the efforts of Healthworks Community Fitness, members and The First Lady of Massachusetts, Diane Patrick, will be speaking.

Lauren Broadhurst and Healthworks Community Fitness have been recognized nationally for their efforts to promote health and provide opportunities for physical activity for low-income women and children.  Watch an interview with Lauren from CNN, or read articles about the organization from NPR and MSNBC. To find out more about Healthworks, visit http://healthworksfoundation.org/.

*Picture sources:

Ashley is a first-year Nutrition Communication student at the Friedman School and is also completing the DPD at Simmons College to become a Registered Dietician.  She is interested in all aspects of fitness, both for herself and for the promotion of health in the greater population.

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