Fitness and community: the O'Fallon Park Rec Complex
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - It’s a few minutes after 11 a.m. on a Friday, but Will James’ 10 -11 a.m. cardio pump boot camp class hasn’t stopped dancing. Heedless of the clock, the group of 25 or so balance weights in their hands, stepping up and down in rhythm and listening to his instructions over a strong beat.
One of the most enthusiastic steppers, Corsander Thompson, 47, has come dressed to sweat. Colorful bangles cover her arms and match her multicolored top. A flower adorns her hair. She puts everything she has into each step. For Thompson, the new YMCA isn’t just a place to work out. It’s her community and a way of life that’s saved her.
"I can’t thank God enough for this place,” she says.
Thompson is one of 4,000 people who use the O’Fallon Park Rec Complex, which is owned by the city but run by the YMCA. The complex, which opened in January, offers programs for people of all ages. Thompson can’t say enough good things about it.
"I used to smoke cigarettes and I used to weigh like 289 pounds,” she said. "I was depressed because I was overweight.”
The homemaker and mother of three says that the staff there helped her in many ways.
"I love them so much,” she said. "They always find time. They’ll stop and talk to me.”
Thompson said she has experienced domestic violence. She remained depressed and angry after she got out of the violent situation. The exercise and the supportive environment at the Y have helped her to focus on something more positive.
"At the end of the day, I don’t have stress. I can’t wait to come back the next day to exercise,” she said.
Thompson has lost 30 pounds at the Y, going from a size 24 to a size 16.
Another boot camp regular, Rodney Griffin, 44, credits the class with helping him lose 50 pounds since starting in April of this year. The instructor, he said “basically taught me how to go from obesity to taking care of my health.” Griffin came to the complex weighing 300 pounds. He had muscle tone, he said, but no idea how to lose weight or enhance his cardiovascular health.
He has been coming to the Y four times a week since April, including on the weekends with his wife and five children.
"My wife and I have a 21-month old. And we bring her to the day care. She loves it,” he said.
Like Thompson, Griffin sees the O’Fallon Park Rec Complex as a haven, a friendly place where he and his family can connect with people, as well as work out.
"The atmosphere is beautiful,” he said. "I couldn’t ask for a better facility than this one. Everybody is so friendly. Everybody tries to help you.”
Obesity is a major public health problem in the United States. Studies show that African Americans are more likely to be obese than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. According to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in 2011, 30.3 percent of Missouri’s white non-Hispanic population was obese. Among African Americans, the percentage jumps to 38.2 percent.
As part of a yearlong initiative, the St. Louis Beacon, in partnership with the Missouri Foundation for Health, has embarked on a project highlighting the efforts of African Americans in north St. Louis to become fit.
The Robert Wood Johnson study points out that one risk factor for obesity is the lack of safe places to work out and play. Greater success, the study said, lies in a place that is tailored to the emotional and cultural needs of its community. The O’Fallon Park Rec Complex does just that.
Rob West, executive director of the facility, says that the programs offered there are specifically tailored to the African Americans who live on the north side. With 14 years under his belt working for the Y, West has seen his share of YMCAs. And he said they are all different.
"We are what our community needs us to be,” he said. For example, spinning classes, so popular at many suburban YMCAs, are not offered at the O’Fallon Park Y, West said, because they don’t appeal to its membership
With its quick pace and intensive workout, the boot camp class is perfect for the young to the middle-aged, such as Thompson and Griffin, and for relatively healthy seniors. But the O’Fallon Park Y also caters to those with greater health challenges, particularly among older adults.
"We have active older adult classes because we know this (neighborhood) has a lot of older adults,” West said.
Murita Minger, a 62-year-old grandmother, is such a person. Minger, who has COPD and carries an oxygen tank, needed a walker when she first started working out at the Y. It took her five minutes to walk from her car to the door of the facility.
She started out spending 15 minutes on the treadmill. Now she stays on for an hour, and then goes on to do other exercises. In six months, she’s lost 42 pounds. And, she’s not as hungry as she used to be.
"My doctor’s so proud of me, and my breathing is better,” she said.
But she’s not done yet. “I want to lose at least a hundred pounds.”
Minger’s faith has helped her in her journey. She prays on the days she doesn’t want to come to the Y, and that helps her to make the effort. Members of her church have been very supportive.
"They say, you can do anything you want to. The Lord will allow you. Hearing the word just inspires you to say, you can,” she said.
Breaking bad habits
Thompson, Griffin and Minger have lost weight through more than exercise. They also drastically changed their eating habits.
Minger, who was a data-entry operator, said she used to eat four candy bars a day while working. Now she eats one per week. She also eats much less ice cream and more broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.
"I knew how to cook them, I just didn’t cook,” she said. Instead of potato chips, Minger snacks on kale toasted in the oven with a little olive oil, a trick she learned from Dr. Oz.
Griffin and Thompson have also changed their eating regimen. Both avoid fried foods and eat more fruits and vegetables.
A safe place to work out
While Griffin and Thompson have emphasized how much they like the staff and the atmosphere at the Y, Thompson also feels physically safe there.
Before the Y opened, Thompson used to ride bikes with her children to Forest Park and also walked with them in Fairgrounds Park. But she didn't feel safe there.
"Last time we were in Fairgrounds Park a loose dog (a pit bull) got after us,” she said.
Thompson encouraged her children to run away, but she couldn’t run fast enough. A man from the St. Louis City Parks Department saw her and helped her get away from the dog. But she doesn't want to return because she feels the park is unsafe, not only because of dogs, but also because of people.
"There are a lot of people that do violent things" there, she said.
Thompson said if she wants to go for a walk outside, she walks around O’Fallon Park.