Nonprofit Gym Aims To Improve Health In Boston’s Minority Neighborhoods

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A gym member at the nonprofit Healthworks in Codman Square, Dorchester, works out on a recent weekday morning. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
A gym member at the nonprofit Healthworks in Codman Square, Dorchester, works out on a recent weekday morning. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Has this week’s Boston Marathon inspired you to work out more or finally join a gym? Or maybe you already belong to a gym but can’t get motivated to go. Well, in many of Boston’s low-income minority neighborhoods — where obesity and diabetes are huge problems — trying to get fit isn’t just a matter of motivation; there also aren’t enough safe, affordable places for people to work out. But one Dorchester fitness center is trying to change that.


At a hip-hop class at Healthworks in Codman Square, about 10 women do “the jerk,” a dance led by an instructor named K.J. with long dreadlocks and great moves. But none of these women have lean, sculpted bodies; most are where 36-year-old Tamica was less than a year ago.

“Where I was is that I was obese,” Tamica concedes. “I was 252 pounds. No health problems, thank God for that — no sugar, no diabetes, no high cholesterol. But that was not healthy, because eventually those problems would have come on. Now I am a total of 170 even — and this is just from no gastro, no lap band, no diets.”

Tamica says she visits the Codman Square gym every weekday and runs three miles a day — even though she had never run before.

In fact, exercising at all in this neighborhood wasn’t easy before this nonprofit gym opened, according to many of the women who work out here. The few fitness centers around were too expensive or too crowded, they say.

Membership fees are based on income. The most anyone pays is $30. And nearby doctors can write what they call “prescriptions” to the gym for patients who would benefit from exercise.

And many of them like that Healthworks is for women only, since wearing spandex and sweatpants at a co-ed gym can be humiliating when you’re 100 pounds overweight.

“I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed of being big coming up in the gym,” Tamica explains, “because we all understand each other — versus with men and women, it’s discouraging.”

Mary Shaw, who’s 51 and lives in Mattapan, agrees. She comes here six days a week because, she says, fear of crime and traffic keep her from exercising outdoors.

“So many people here are obese and they want to walk and it is really unsafe,” Shaw says. “I don’t care what anybody else says — it is unsafe.”

Shaw also goes here because she can afford it. She lost her job cleaning trains for Amtrak about a year ago, but this gym costs her just $10 a month.

Membership fees are based on income. The most anyone pays is $30. And doctors at the nearby Codman Square Health Center and Dorchester House Multi-Service Center can write what they call “prescriptions” to the gym for patients who would benefit from exercise. That prescription is good for a free three-month membership.

Shaw says this affordability lets her do what many other people take for granted.

“We do need more gyms here in Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roslindale,” she adds. “Everybody wants to get out and work out to better their health, but there’s nowhere to go.”

“In middle-income communities there’s somehow an expectation that you’re going to have access to gyms, but when you’re in a low-income community that stuff doesn’t exist,” agrees Bill Walczak, CEO of the Codman Square Health Center, which partnered with Healthworks to build this gym about a year and a half ago.

The Codman Healthworks is paid for by a charitable foundation funded by the five for-profit Healthworks fitness centers in the Boston area, where memberships cost about three times as much. But the Codman Square location has the same type of equipment and classes, from yoga to Pilates to something called the Bodylicious Bootcamp. There’s also a children’s fitness area.

“We’re just tip of the iceberg right here in terms of the actual need of this community to have access to indoor gyms where they can exercise,” Walczak adds.

And not only exercise. Later this year, a teaching kitchen will open at the Codman Healthworks to show women how to make healthy foods. That’s because the gym’s goal is to improve people’s health, not just get them ready for bikini season.

Of course, Tamica, after dropping 80 pounds working out here, needs much more than a new swimsuit now. She needs a whole new wardrobe.

“I can’t wait to get this next 20 pounds off of me, baby, get cut up, get them abs coming through,” she says with a laugh. “Then I’m going to shop until I can’t drop!”

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