Fit for Free in NYC

January 20, 2011 Updated: January 21, 2011

NEW YORK—Mostly seniors participated in the aerobic dance class in at Manhattanville Community Center on Thursday. It was by no means senior level, however, and was enough to tire out this 26-year-old reporter.

Some of the people in the class could outdo 16-year-olds, said the instructor just before the participants started their 12-week fitness challenge, courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The endeavor is part of the Shape Up NYC program, which provides free fitness classes throughout the city.

The kickoff events for the free fitness challenge were held throughout the five boroughs over the past week. Participants set goals and got measured for height, weight, strength, and flexibility.
In April, they will get measured once more, and the top three “most improved” will win prizes.

Instructor Carol Anne Valentino, who leads the class in Manhatanville Community Center as well as at other venues in the city, is planning to make the participants sweat.

“This is by far the most rewarding thing I've participated in,” Valentino said. “The individuals that are coming here are coming with pure passion and desire, more so than what I have ever seen.”
She plans to pick up the heat and to gradually increase the level of the fitness.

The response to the challenge has been widespread, with attendance of the Shape Up NYC classes more than doubling during the kickoff week, said Assistant Commissioner for Recreation and Programming Nancy Barthold.

Shape Up NYC started about three years ago in three neighborhoods that had the highest rate of obesity and related diseases: South Bronx, Bushwick/Bed-Stuy and East Harlem. Due to the success of the free fitness classes, the Department of Parks and Recreation was then requested to expand the program across the city. The agency partnered with the Equinox gym last summer to facilitate the expansion.

“We are [now] pretty much throughout the city,” said Barthold.

Fitness can help people become healthy, thereby reducing the need for medications or hospital visits and decreasing health care costs, she added.

“[The Department of Parks and Recreation] in the business of providing pubic space and making New Yorkers healthy,” Barthold said. “That is what we were created to do. We are fulfilling our mission by encouraging New Yorkers to do that [get healthy and fit]. We show them how easy and inexpensive it is. It is inexpensive or free in a Parks facility [to exercise], and it's fun.”

Marry Wadkins, 75, has been coming to Shape Up NYC in Manhattanville Community Center every week for the past two months. She is looking forward to the challenge, aiming to lose six pounds. The free fitness classes have helped her greatly, she said, making her feel stronger and improving the health of her knees.

Silvia Cherri-boga, in her late 20s, is also one of the regular participants of the class. Loosing 20 pounds is her goal for the challenge.

“I can do it! You have me on tape,” Cherri-boga said. She previously shed 10 pounds from participating in the classes. Her friend lost 60 pounds.

“This is the best thing New York has ever done,” asserted Valentino.