Non-profit gym offers health education to Boston women

The sights and sounds inside Healthworks Community Fitness in Boston’s Codman Square neighborhood resemble most gyms in America.

The hypnotic rumble of treadmills. The clanging of weights. Dance music leaking through the walls.

But this is not your ordinary gym.

The fitness center, which opened in 2008 and serves about 1,000 women from the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury, is a non-profit organization whose mission is to offer low-income women an affordable place to take control of their health.

This is a critical resource in this part of Boston, where rates of obesity and diabetes are higher than the state average and affordable and safe places to exercise can be hard to come by.

This year, the fitness center incorporated health curriculum from the American Heart Association’s EmPOWERED to Serve platform into its eight-week “Woman, Be Fit” program, which is tailored to new members of the gym. In addition to learning how to use the row machines and treadmills, participants learned about a variety of health topics, such as controlling blood pressure, eating a healthy diet, and managing diabetes.

Some members were also given portable blood pressure monitors to take home with them.

This partnership between the American Heart Association and Healthworks Communuty Fitness was made possible through a sponsorship funded by Sage Therapeutics.

“The most helpful thing with EmPOWERED to Serve was to be able to see all the lesson plans laid out, and to be able to match them up to what the women were doing in class,” said Gibbs J. Saunders, the fitness center’s executive director.

In Boston, the American Heart Association is helping four community groups implement EmPOWERED to Serve.

In addition to Healthworks Community Fitness, the Association is working with Heart of a Giant Foundation, a local non-profit combatting heart disease in under resourced areas of Boston; Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center, a Dorchester organization that offers free and low-cost tennis, academic, and life skills programming; Madison Park Development Corporation, a non-profit that develops affordable housing; and Breaktime, an organization working to combat youth homelessness.

After Sage Therapeutics committed to helping launch an EmPOWERED to Serve program in Boston, the American Heart Association quickly identified Healthworks Community Fitness as an ideal partner. In 2020, the center received $100,000 in funding from the Association’s Social Impact Funds.

The goal for the American Heart Association and Sage Therapeutics is that the attendees take something away from each lesson and apply it in their homes and communities.

“Healthy living is not just a goal, it’s a journey, and programs that empower people to take charge of their health are key to creating a world free of heart disease and stroke,” said Karen A. Whitefield, executive director of the American Heart Association in Boston. “They give individuals the tools they need to make informed decisions about their lifestyle choices, which can have a profound impact on their overall well-being.”

More than a quarter of the members at Healthworks Community Fitness are referred through a prescription program from their primary care physicians, especially at the nearby Codman Square Health Center. Membership fees, which include access to the 10,000-square-foot center and a variety of small-group training programs, are significantly lower than at other Boston gyms.

In “Woman, Be Fit,” up to 20 women meet weekly and also pledge to work out on their own at least twice a week and keep a food journal.

In addition to the EmPOWERED to Serve lessons, they receive individualized fitness training and nutritional guidance, including cooking demonstrations in the center’s community teaching kitchen. For women with diabetes, the program also works to lower blood sugar levels and increase insulin sensitivity.

More than 500 people have participated in the program since it was launched, said Saunders. She plans to continue incorporating EmPOWERED to Serve lessons into the program moving forward.