As tragic as Hurricane Katrina was, I saw another tragedy in the city of New Orleans. It stared at me each time the cameras showed the convention center, the Superdome and the people being pulled from their rooftops. While many complained that the government failed these people in the days immediately after Katrina, I couldn't help but feel that the fitness industry had failed them long ago. I was struck by how many of these people were overweight or obese.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. Louisiana ranks fourth in the United States in rate of adult obesity at 25.8 percent, according to a 2005 study by Trust for America's Health. By all accounts, many of the hurricane refugees at the Superdome were low income, financially unable to evacuate. As many as 70 percent of low-income adults are overweight, about 10 percent more than the non-poor, according to statistics from the American Enterprise Institute.
Louisiana is not alone. Obesity rates are rising in every state and are not confined to the inner city. Rural and Native American populations also have higher obesity and poverty rates than the suburbs. Everyone must take responsibility for his or her own health and fitness, but are we making it as convenient for the poor to work out as we are for the middle and upper classes? Fitness facility owners, being entrepreneurs, often locate their facilities in middle- to upper-income neighborhoods, providing ample opportunities for these individuals to exercise. But you won't find a health club on every corner in a low-income neighborhood.
Do these Americans have access to a car or bus line to get to a gym? Do they have money to buy appropriate shoes and clothes to work out in? Is this too much effort to ask of someone who never exercised before when we can't even get the middle-class non-exerciser who lives across the street to join our facilities?
This problem affects all of us — the more unfit poor we have, the more the state and federal governments (meaning you) pick up their medical tabs — so we can't just leave it to the Ys to serve the low-income areas. Some of you have undoubtedly already stepped up in some way to serve the poor, but for those of you who haven't, consider reaching out to schools or religious institutions in low-income areas to offer free exercise or nutrition classes for children and adults or work with your city or county to establish safe places for the poor to exercise in public parks or community centers. Or perhaps you could follow the example of the Healthworks Fitness Centers Inc., four upscale health clubs in the Boston area that created a foundation to support the Healthworks Foundation Fitness Center for low-income and homeless women as well as pregnant teenagers. Funding for the club comes from a portion of the membership dues of the for-profit Healthworks Fitness Centers. Some of the members donate extra money or time to the center. Other money comes from Boston Marathon runners sponsored by individuals and companies.
You may never reap financial rewards from these efforts, but I bet you'll reap greater personal rewards for yourself and your staff. As Kim Walker, the general manager at Healthworks, told me back in 2003, “One of the things I'm learning in life is that when you offer something for free with the intention of just giving, you get so much more back.”