This story was published by Good Magazine with support from the Spot.Us community.]
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.
David Sloan, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, says the difference in fitness opportunities between affluent and low-income areas are stark. While wealthy West Los Angeles has 70.1 acres of recreation or green space per 1,000 people, low-income South Los Angeles has 1.2 acres per 1,000. Meanwhile, private gyms are much more common in the more affluent areas. The recession has made it even more difficult to rely on public parks for fitness and recreation, as public resources earmarked for those spaces dwindle.
There are many explanations for why the disparities exist: poor city planning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, allocation of resources to new development at county fringes rather than the urban core, and reticence on the part of corporate brands to enter poorer communities. The result is that many people in those neighborhoods don't exercise at all, while others develop innovative ways of getting a workout.
In the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, dozens of people hike up steep Valley Ridge Drive throughout the day, with more arriving after work. Community members hold fitness classes in their homes. Every day, just south of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Martin Luther King Blvd, several dozen people run laps, bike, or play games in an asphalt parking lot. Victor Martinez has been running there five days a week for the past two years. The nearest open space to Martinez’s home is half an hour away. The parking lot is just 10 minutes away, on the route between his work and home, and unlike a gym, it’s free.
“In South Central,” he says, “there’s not a lot of areas for walking and exercise. We need more parks in the community.”
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