How An Innovative Gym Is Changing Lives In This Poor Minneapolis Neighborhood

A wellness program in north Minneapolis could become a model for the nation — delivering affordable, accessible fitness and nutrition where it’s needed most.

Like any gym, there are weights and machines, and an impressive number of metal frames made to jump on, if you’re brave enough to risk your shin bones. But then you notice the kids and their parents — and they are working.

Springing from one orange cone to another, crab-walking across the large space with resistance bands around their thighs, jumping up on blocks, flipping tractor tires — there’s some serious cross-training action going on all over the space as kids ranging from middle schoolers to teens sprint side by side. Their parents sometimes jump in, or form a clutch of adults on the other side of the large room, as trainers direct them all and keep the energy high.

Just down the hall, there’s a cooking class focusing on healthy foods in a fully outfitted kitchen. A dietician is talking about quinoa, kale, chia seeds and other less-than-familiar options, but also makes a chart of favorite selections like yogurt and bananas — and showcases how everything can fit into a budget.

In one-on-one sessions in smaller rooms, there are coaches talking about self-esteem, confidence and goals in a way that keeps listeners riveted.

Here, transformation isn’t a side effect, it’s an expectation.

This is Youth & Families Determined to Succeed (YFDS), a program started by former NFL player Melvin Anderson in north Minneapolis, one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the Twin Cities. The neighborhood’s 32% obesity rate is the highest in the county, and well above the state average of 28%.

Kids work out with trainers from the neighborhood at Youth & Families Determined to Succeed in north Minneapolis.
Kids work out with trainers from the neighborhood at Youth & Families Determined to Succeed in north Minneapolis.
Youth & Families Determined to Succeed

Although this 12,000-square-foot facility just opened in early May — part of a larger community sports complex — it’s founded on strong results from a three-year pilot program held at the University of Minnesota in partnership with Park Nicollet Health Care.

After just a few weeks of the new facility being officially open, it already has about 20 families coming in regularly, and more are joining every day. The mission, Anderson believes, is a simple one.

“We’re here to save lives,” he told HuffPost, “in an area where health is a life-or-death struggle.”

That’s not hyperbole. Places like north Minneapolis are at significant risk when it comes to chronic health issues that reverberate through generations, according to Pasquale Rummo, a public health researcher and assistant professor in the department of population health at NYU Langone. With its holistic approach to changing lifestyle habits and perceptions related to food, exercise and psychological well-being, a program like YFDS could make a real difference, Rummo said.

In areas like this, which are seen as “food swamps,” where the amount of unhealthy food is plentiful, while healthy options are lacking, there’s a high risk of poor diet behaviors, Rummo told HuffPost. And that can be exacerbated by the lack of other health-related resources, like no access to parks and walking areas, insufficient mental health services, and no public policy initiatives to address health drivers like unemployment and poverty.

“We’re here to save lives in an area where health is a life-or-death struggle.”

- Melvin Anderson, founder of Youth & Families Determined to Succeed

It’s meaningful, he stressed, that YFDS’s workouts and cooking classes are led by trainers and coaches from the neighborhood. Offering interventions that are culturally relevant can make a huge impact.

“When you are living in an economically disadvantaged area, you might have different social norms around something like obesity,” said Rummo. “Your solution has to address those norms in a way that feels respectful and meaningful.”

Of course, the solution also needs to be affordable. Many programs and cities are trying to fill the health and fitness void by offering free and low-cost classes in underserved communities. For example, Shape Up NYC is a no-cost, drop-in program that offers the kind of classes — bootcamp, Pilates, yoga, Zumba and more — that typically require a chunk of change to attend. In the U.K., there are efforts like Parkrun, a nonprofit that organizes events like free weekly 5K runs that anyone can attend.

And of course, there’s also an overwhelming amount of free fitness content online. A Google video search on “workouts” returned 233 million results.

But, Anderson said, people need more to drive themselves toward transformation than simple access and affordability.

In fact, Anderson makes his members pay some amount — a sliding-scale fee, based on income, which can range up to hundreds per month for multiple family members — because that gives them “skin in the game,” and that type of buy-in keeps them from skipping gym days.

Anderson believes that to truly effect change among individuals, families and neighborhoods — providing the tools and training that lead to happier, healthier lives — requires meeting people on their own turf and attending to more than just their activity levels.

YFDS founder Melvin Anderson says his goal is "to create a picture of what success looks like, what getting people healed looks like, what sustainable wellness can be."
YFDS founder Melvin Anderson says his goal is "to create a picture of what success looks like, what getting people healed looks like, what sustainable wellness can be."
Youth & Families Determined to Succeed

YFDS provides comprehensive coaching services, teaching people how to exercise, but also what to eat, how to lower stress levels, and ways to manage their health conditions. The expectation, too, is that they will commit to at least 12 to 18 months to move in the right direction, which helps them see health and fitness as a lifelong endeavor, not some “28-day shred” fitness program.

That’s been the experience of north Minneapolis resident Ashley Springfield and her 14-year-old son Jaivon. Springfield heard about the pilot program through some friends when it started in 2012 and joined — one of 350 families. Back then, she was a single 24-year-old mom trying to work and get her GED. Already juggling a chock-full life in terms of scheduling, she’d also been diagnosed with prediabetes and knew that what she and Jaivon were eating wasn’t healthy.

“I was very stressed, I’d gained a lot of weight, and we were eating cheap, fast food,” she told HuffPost. “The program showed us how to choose healthy foods, how to afford them, and best of all, how to cook them and tweak recipes. I felt like that opened up a whole different world for us.”

While she took cooking classes, Jaivon gravitated to yoga, and ended up a devoted yogi. They went three times a week, and the instruction helped his chronic asthma significantly, Springfield said. Before YFDS, Jaivon was often at the doctor, with numerous rounds of prednisone to control his flare-ups. But yoga changed that, especially when they started doing some at home.

“We started doing sun salutations in the morning and at night,” she said. “When we did them first thing, it was a way to set ourselves up for the day and set goals, to prepare ourselves for what was ahead. At night, it helped us to wind down, and to sleep better. He hasn’t had a lot of doctor visits in the last seven years.”

The YFDS coaching helped Springfield lose weight, manage her stress and feel focused. She felt empowered to start talking to the produce manager at the local supermarket, which was lacking in variety and fresh options. Her voice was heard, along with others from YFDS, she said — they’re now stocking a much wider array of healthy choices than she had when she grew up there.

She and Jaivon still go to YFDS a few times per week, and she now has a personal trainer. She credits the program with helping her and her son do more than get physically healthy, although that was a big bonus.

“We understand how health isn’t just about working out or what you eat,” she said. “It’s your mental health, your emotional health, your habits, your outlook, your goals. Everything ties together, and your job is to keep it balanced. That’s what YFDS teaches people how to do.”

That emphasis on a broader definition of health is what’s truly needed in communities like north Minneapolis said Serita Colette, a Minneapolis-based yoga teacher who leads classes for people of color, and has done extensive work in community outreach to make yoga and wellness accessible for all.

YFDS coaches teach members how to eat and budget for more vegetables in their diets.
YFDS coaches teach members how to eat and budget for more vegetables in their diets.
Youth & Families Determined to Succeed

“There is increasing recognition that you can’t just offer affordable or donation-based classes and think that’s enough to reach economically disadvantaged individuals,” she told HuffPost. “You need to understand what they want, and be in partnership with the community.”

Part of that strategy can be to take fitness and wellness out of a centralized facility and into the neighborhoods they’re trying to serve. When people feel comfortable in a space, they’re more likely to participate, believes Kirsten Potenza, founder of Los Angeles-based POUND fitness. “So many people are scared to step foot in a gym, and they believe that building healthy habits will feel like work,” she said. “That’s why you have to meet them where they are.”

POUND instructors across the country often teach their rock ’n’ roll drumming-themed cardio classes wherever they see a need — including community centers, churches, hospitals, parks, schools and retirement homes.

Potenza added that her program emphasizes “not just fitness, but destressing, nutrition, play and human connection. You need to help people kick-start habits they will truly stick with because they’re fun.”

“I’ve had people who were prediabetic talk to me about getting fit, and then I don’t see them for a year, when they’re now diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes,” said Anderson. “They’re scared about their health during the first conversation, and yet that’s somehow not enough to get them to change. That says a lot about what we’re up against. That speaks to the need for prevention at every level.”

A YFDS yoga class.
A YFDS yoga class.
Youth & Families Determined to Succeed

Much like any aspect of health care and wellness, helping people once they’re chronically ill or obese is much more difficult and complicated than focusing on preventing these conditions in the first place.

Affordability is a good start, but community-wellness leaders like Colette and Anderson believe that’s exactly what it is: a start. Access is also a beginning point, but still not enough.

To truly transform wellness in a way that makes it meaningful for everyone, you have to boost engagement and commitment, and those aspects need to permeate a program at every level, right down to the kids who are playing in a space after school with their parents and grandparents. It certainly helps to have people like Springfield and her son, who act as examples of what can happen with YFDS membership, and who have both grown up in the neighborhood.

Those in north Minneapolis who continue to show up, day after day, to improve their health are also helping fuel a model that Anderson hopes will be replicated nationally in the next few years. He’s hoping to attract other health leaders like him, who are committed to a mission like his.

“We’re dealing with some really complex issues when you’re talking about wellness and community,” says Anderson. “We’re trying to create a picture of what success looks like, what getting people healed looks like, what sustainable wellness can be. Believe me, that’s not easy. But it’s worth it.”

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