In Fitness Deserts, Working Out Isn't as Simple as Hitting the Gym

Fitness deserts pose health challenges to millions of Americans, mostly low-income ones.

Four times a week, Kaleena Welch risks her life for a workout. She walks down the shoulder of La Brea Boulevard in South Los Angeles, where the speed limit is 45 mph and cars usually go closer to 60. When she comes to one blind curve in the road, she waits for a lull in traffic, then steps into the road.

“I have to run and jump and then the trail starts again,” she says. “It’s ridiculous. I just hope and pray.”

Welch would like to join a gym, but there’s only one option nearby, and most days it’s so crowded she can’t get time on a machine. There are no parks in her immediate neighborhood, either. She’s one of millions of people who live in a “fitness desert,” areas with few opportunities for exercise.

Like food deserts—areas where residents don’t have reliable access to fresh food—fitness deserts pose health challenges to millions of Americans, mostly low-income ones. A full 80 percent of census blocks do not have a park within a half-mile, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last year [PDF]. Studies have shown that these disparities exist in cities all over the country, including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C., complicating efforts to fight obesity in poor communities.

David Sloan, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, says the difference in fitness opportunities between affluent and low-income areas are stark. While wealthy West Los Angeles has 70.1 acres of recreation or green space per 1,000 people, low-income South Los Angeles has 1.2 acres per 1,000. Meanwhile, private gyms are much more common in the more affluent areas. The recession has made it even more difficult to rely on public parks for fitness and recreation, as public resources earmarked for those spaces dwindle.

There are many explanations for why the disparities exist: poor city planning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, allocation of resources to new development at county fringes rather than the urban core, and reticence on the part of corporate brands to enter poorer communities. The result is that many people in those neighborhoods don't exercise at all, while others develop innovative ways of getting a workout.

In the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, dozens of people hike up steep Valley Ridge Drive throughout the day, with more arriving after work. Community members hold fitness classes in their homes. Every day, just south of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Martin Luther King Blvd, several dozen people run laps, bike, or play games in an asphalt parking lot. Victor Martinez has been running there five days a week for the past two years. The nearest open space to Martinez’s home is half an hour away. The parking lot is just 10 minutes away, on the route between his work and home, and unlike a gym, it’s free.

“In South Central,” he says, “there’s not a lot of areas for walking and exercise. We need more parks in the community.”

Sometimes, the creative exercise solutions of a few leads to the creation of formal exercise spaces. For example, the stairs and trail at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook are now part of a popular state park, but people used the hill as a hiking and exercise path long before the space earned formal designation in 2000.

“This is the way things have worked from time immemorial: people find areas that have natural features that suit their uses. Now, people gravitate to streets that have steep inclines if they want to get exercise,” says David McNeill, executive director of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, a state board that works to increase access to open space and recreational opportunities in the Baldwin Hills area.

McNeill is working to secure funds for a proper trail where Welch walks on La Brea, and for barriers to protect hikers from the busy traffic. The project could cost anywhere from $60,000 to $300,000.

But critics say such expenditures are not always worth the money, arguing motivation is a far more pressing public health challenge than the lack of options in fitness deserts. “We’re talking about a relatively small segment of the population that utilizes spaces like these,” says Toni Yancey, a public health scholar at UCLA.

Yancey points to a 1999 study that found 30 percent of people in West Los Angeles, where exercise opportunities abound, get no exercise at all, suggesting lack of access may not be the biggest problem. She has concluded that limited public dollars would be better spent on motivational programs, like workplace exercise regimens targeting people who lead sedentary lives.

But she acknowledges that “having more options can’t hurt at all,” and more parks could help close the gap between more and less affluent neighborhoods. More people would almost certainly take advantage of trails if they were safer and clearly marked. But for the moment, dedicated fitness buffs in South L.A. and fitness deserts across the country are blazing their own paths.

Driving on La Brea recently, McNeill pointed to a runner jogging on the median between cars zooming past in both directions. He may not know it, but that runner is an activist, McNeill says.

“You gotta’ tune into these people, because they’re making a statement: they are going to find a way to take their walk or get their exercise. And I gotta’ say ‘You go, and we’ll try and support you.’ Because you shouldn’t have to make that statement—it should be there for you.”

Photos by Alex Schmidt

This story was partially funded by the community through Spot.Us

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