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

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

by Alex Schmidt

October 8, 2011

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.

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