July 14, 2015; WGBH

Most of us understand that our health is deeply affected by the ability to exercise safely and eat fresh food that won’t poison our systems over time. But, what do you do if your neighborhood is unconducive to such stuff?

In Roxbury, a relatively low-income Boston neighborhood, the Whittier Street Health center has decided that trying to help people get or stay healthy must include exercise. The average life span in that neighborhood is 59 years, and chronic problems like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure mark 70 percent of its patients. An exercise regimen would certainly help, but many of their patients do not have a safe space to work out, having neither access to a gym nor the money to join one. So, the center went ahead and established one. Stocked with treadmills, bikes, and weights, and with space for yoga and pilates, the gym costs only $10/month.

According to the Whittier Street website, “Patients can request a Prescription for Health from their Primary Care Physician, Psychiatrist or Bay State Physical Therapist. Each prescription will be tailored to their individual needs. The program can include a configuration of prescribed services, such as yoga, dance, nutritional tips, physical fitness, life coaching or acupuncture. A Life Coach will meet with the patient to formulate their Prescription for Health, schedule attendance among the activity groups, and incorporate nutrition groups and acupuncture.”

Belinda Smith is one of the patients who make regular use of the facility, which opened on June 27th. She is ill enough to have to do dialysis three days a week, but now she has also committed to working out three days a week, walking about 20 minutes a day in intervals of two minutes.

In the two weeks the gym has been open, 300 people have joined.

Down the road in Codman Square, Dorchester, also a low-income neighborhood with the same kind of chronic health problems, Healthworks Community Fitness provides a state-of-the-art fitness center that works closely with the model Codman Square Health Center, which helped get it built in 2008. It is subsidized by the for-profit Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women, which funds the effort through its foundation, and it has more than 1800 members. Patients of the Health Center are prescribed exercise to manage diabetes, obesity, hypertension and mood disorders, and those prescriptions can be filled at this gym with each membership subsidized to as low as $10/month.

NPQ would love to hear about similar marriages of nonprofit fitness centers and community health centers. Let us know about the models with which you are familiar!—Ruth McCambridge