Health programs combat obesity in Central Brooklyn

October 9, 2012 By Tanay Warerkar For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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On a cloudy, sweaty Wednesday evening, a crowd of 20-odd people dressed in tights, shorts and sweatshirts gathered in the courtyard of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza.

Within minutes the crowd broke into smaller groups. One gathered around bikes, another began jogging in the courtyard, and a third waited in the corner.

A few latecomers walked towards a table in the center of the courtyard. It was lined with apples, bananas, bottles of water, and an array of colorful pamphlets promoting physical fitness and healthy eating habits.

“Alright, listen up everyone,” said T.I. Williams. “Your instructors are here, so you are free to leave in your groups now.”

Williams is the chief coordinator of Bed-Stuy Healthy Families on the move, a health initiative launched by the Brooklyn Alliance for Safer Streets (BASS), a community advisory group that works in coordination with the District Public Health Office in Brooklyn.

Healthy Families, which provides instructor-led biking, running and walking exercises, has been meeting every Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. since July 18. Oct. 3 was its last. The initiative was aimed at countering obesity in the community.

Bed-Stuy has one of the highest rates of obesity in New York City. Twenty-six percent of all adults aged 18-44 suffer from it in Bed-Stuy compared to the citywide average of 18 percent.

Healthy Families is just one of many fitness initiatives the NYC Parks Department and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have launched since 2010. Among the programs they offer include weekly, instructor-led walks all over the city, and Shape Up NYC, a program that offers free fitness classes at numerous locations in the five boroughs.

Healthy Families has seen a steady increase in its attendance since the launch. Fifteen people attended the first event. It has averaged 20-30 people each, and it peaked at 40 two weeks ago. The rain over the past two weeks brought down the number to 20 at the final event, however.

“Come on,” said Quiana Richardson, the leader of the walking group, “now swing your arms like those runners.” Richardson led a group of women through the streets of Bed-Stuy.

Every few minutes she would change the walking routine by adding in arm-stretching exercises, and squats that she made the group perform in two sets of 10. “It isn’t enough just to walk,” said Richardson. “You have to do more.”

Richardson is a representative of Walk NYC, a health initiative launched by the NYC Parks Department. Walk NYC is just one of the many groups that made Healthy Families a possibility.

Healthy Families was primarily organized by BASS. The latter is an advisory group that was setup in 2010 on the recommendation of District Public Health Office, when Bed-Stuy along with Bushwick, East New York and Brownsville were all identified as epicenters of the obesity epidemic in Brooklyn.

“We used to work on lead poisoning in Brooklyn,” said Sarah Timmins DeGregory, program manager at the Brooklyn District Public Health Office. “But since 2010 we are focused on modes of transport in people, just getting people to take part in some form of physical activity.”

After its formation in 2010, BASS solicited volunteers from the community to create a program. BASS decided to have a regular activity that would involve the entire community. “The goal was to give people 12 opportunities over a 12-week period,” said Williams. “They could start from a small number and then grow in terms of their mileage.”

BASS received funding from the District Public Health Office and the Citizens Committee for New York City, and then approached local institutions in Bed-Stuy to donate their services to the event.

The latter have been critical in the operation of the initiative. Restoration Plaza has helped with publicity and provided the meeting location. FoodTown, a local grocery store, provided participants free water and fruits before and after the exercise. Walk NYC and the Bed-Stuy YMCA provided walking leaders and fitness instructors respectively. And Applebees provided free coupons and gift cards to its healthy menu, as an incentive for the participants.

Physical activity has become critical in a neighborhood where one in four adults suffer from obesity, according to the District Public Health Office. What is even more startling is the fact that 30 percent of all adults in Bed-Stuy report to not exercising at all.

“People in lower-income neighborhoods don’t necessarily have access to healthy food goods, particularly produce,” said Naketa Thomas, a research coordinator at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center. “They would have to travel to get healthier options. And eating habits have a tendency to transcend from generation to generation.”

Healthy Families’ participants have recognized the importance of the program for their health, and the neighborhood.  Andrea Clinton, who has participated seven times, feels the program’s strongest incentive is the fact that it allows neighbors to meet and work with each other.

“Man, when I looked outside, I said I’m not going out in this weather,” she said. “But when I do the walk, I’m always glad I come.”

Greg Ifill, a five-time participant, feels the program provided visibility to concerns about fitness in the community. He recalled people turning their heads to notice, and others stopping them in the street to ask questions about the program. He also believes the program has allowed people of every demographic to take charge of their health.

“Last week we had a gentleman in the group who was walking with a cane,” he said. “To me that is someone who I would never thought to exercise. He didn’t make it through the full walk, but the fact that he showed up, and strived to do so, that to me is a huge benefit.”

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