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If you want to be more active in the new year, you’re in good company. By some accounts, the Washington region is one of the most fit in the nation. Last year, Arlington topped an annual list of America’s fittest cities and D.C. came in third.
But our region of avid marathoners, furloughed CrossFit-ers and First Family cyclers, has the same barriers to fitness that other areas do. Gyms can be cost-prohibitive, or entirely unavailable in less affluent neighborhoods. Classes can be geared towards one body type, perpetuating beauty standards that should be irrelevant in the quest for overall health.
What does it really take to get fit in Washington? Kojo explores how a region known for being active can be more open to all.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Leticia Long Owner, Wired Cycling
- Ashlee Lawson Captain, District Running Collective; Co-Founder and CEO Rungrl
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We just heard that community and internal motivation are the biggest drivers behind people who work out regularly. But what if you go to a gym and do not see anyone that looks like you? How does being the only person of color or the only person over 40 or the only person of size affect your motivation and the likelihood that you will view fellow gym-goers as your community? Joining us to talk about how gyms and fitness communities can be more inclusive is Leticia Long. She is the owner of Wired Cycling. Leticia Long, thank you for joining us.
LETICIA LONGHello. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Ashlee Lawson, captain with the District Running Collective and the cofounder and CEO of Rungrl. Ashlee Lawson, thank you very much for joining us.
ASHLEE LAWSONIt's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDILeti, if I may call you that...
NNAMDI...fitness has long been equated with skinniness or buffness or youth. Many understand the negative impact of that on a personal level, but if someone who is thinking about health and wellness on a community level, why do you find those standards so damaging?
LONGBecause when we think about health and wellness, we need to focus on actually what it is, health and wellness being better from a cardiovascular perspective, being better from a endocrinology, I mean, all the parts of the body, neurology, that make you healthy. And when you talk about skinny, that really is almost -- doesn't determine anyone's health, because you can be skinny and still have disease. You can be skinny and still be not emotionally healthy. So, it is a definition that I think eliminates a large part of the population.
NNAMDIIt's a distinction, I guess, between how we look or how we think we look, and how healthy we really are.
LONGRight. How we're judged by other people, also.
NNAMDIWhat can we do to keep ourselves from sliding into feeling like we need to look like a certain ideal in order to be considered fit?
LONGI think that one of the main benefits of exercising and of kind of pursuing fitness is this kind of -- this sense of kind of stress relief, of strength, of empowerment that you get by being healthy. That can't be fit into a small term, like being skinny. Kind of like living your best self, which is a term people use all the time now, means really being healthy mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically.
NNAMDIHow does the mindset of this certain look, this certain ideal look, how is that mindset affected by who we exercise with and how gyms and fitness groups advertise themselves?
LONGWell, that's interesting, because, you know, in a lot of the psychology books, when you look at motivation, it's consistent that say we feel comfortable around people who look like us. So, I know that going in. So, my job as an owner, as a leader of a company in terms of having staff, is saying, how do we look at people for who they are? Because, you know, creating a -- diversity is really who we are as humans, you know, the collection of oneness, or difference. Inclusivity means -- is an action. It's something that has to happen. We have to be actively engaged. So, we really create -- at Wired, we create an environment that says, you know, we're all very, very unique and we treat each other with dignity and respect.
NNAMDICost plays a role in who can work out at a boutique gym, but the Washington Region has many groups that get together to work out outside the walls of a gym. We also know there are a number of areas that have gyms on every corner, and others that are considered gym deserts. Ashlee Lawson, what is the District Running Collective, and how did you get involved?
LAWSONAbsolutely. So, District Running Collective is a run crew here in the city. We take to the streets, typically weekly, to promote wellness, community and diversity through running. I got involved when I moved here to DC a little more than five years ago. I was looking for fitness opportunities. I was also looking to meet new friends and meet new faces. And this happened to check all the boxes for me.
NNAMDIEvery week, the group gets together to run on Wednesdays. It's free. It's open to the public. How many people typically show up, and what does that look like?
LAWSONSure. So, we are currently in our offseason, I just want to be clear about that. We'll be back in March but, yes, we run weekly on Wednesdays. And during warmer months when people aren't hiding from weather like today, we have about 150 people that run with us. I would say the majority of the group has grown to be black or African American, while we are growing in diversity, which we're really happy to see.
NNAMDIDoes the fact that it's free sometimes make it harder for people to commit long term? Can it be -- it can be easy to flake on something that didn’t cost you any money.
LAWSONYou know, I think for a group like District Running Collective, what makes it so special is that -- well, one, it is free, and it's access to free fitness, but two, is the community aspect. So, we almost view the running portion as secondary. It's what holds the group together, but the social aspect, coming together, meeting new people, having folks who are sort of collectively accountable for your success as a runner and even outside of running is what keeps people from coming back.
NNAMDIOn the District Running Collective website, it says one of your goals is to build a community of runners that reflects our beautiful city and its diversity. Why is diversity so important to this group?
LAWSONI think Leti just referred to that, or spoke about that briefly, but it's important that, you know, when you come to a group, you see yourself. You know, it's hard to be something that you -- you know, what you can't see. And so what we offer is diversity in age, diversity in experience, diversity in body type, diversity in gender and race. And so when you come to that, one, and find it all in one place but, two, find people that you have direct, shared experiences with, I think you don't wanna miss out on that.
NNAMDIOh, I think about three decades ago, I was part of a group that's formed an annual Georgia Avenue 10K...
NNAMDI...in order to make sure that there were a lot of people of color who were participating in that race...
NNAMDI...and it was very successful for a while. Here's Sammie in Silver Spring, Maryland. Sammie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMMIEHi, Kojo. I belong to a wonderful health club at the end of Antique Row in Kensington, Maryland, called The Sweat Shop. It was originally built -- it was built in two buildings. Originally, they housed an ice cream parlor and a home for the owners. They have filled it upstairs and downstairs in both buildings with all equipment and facilities that are needed for great exercise. They have everything. Not only do they have everything for exercise. They are very all inclusive, very friendly staff, very helpful staff. And all ages, people with disabilities, people without, young, old. I can't say enough good about it.
SAMMIEAnd when I go, hopefully three times a week, I have a trainer every other week. And when I go, it's very nice to get to know people, if only by saying, hi, how are you doing? It is a unique exercise place, compared to others I've been to in my life. I am not a former, quote, "athlete" but...
NNAMDI(overlapping) How long have you been -- how long have you been patronizing The Sweat Shop in Kensington?
SAMMIEProbably five years.
NNAMDIOh, good, good. And so you...
SAMMIEYes, and I'm in my 70s, and I go to stay fit. And it's the best medicine I have.
NNAMDII can understand that, and that underscores the point that Leti was making earlier, that health is not necessarily seen in your body type or how you look. But, Ashlee, I mentioned the Georgia Avenue 10K that we started earlier. How does your interest in promoting diversity play out in where you decide to run?
LAWSONGreat question. I think we are very intentional in District Running Collective about most especially taking our running across the river. I think we -- you talked about sort of these fitness deserts, and east of the river is definitely where that is. And I think, you know, there's not a lot of gyms over there. And so it's one of those things where if we can get 50 plus people sort of mobbing down MLK Avenue and through Anacostia Park and those residents in that area see that, hopefully we're, one, inspiring them to get up and get moving, but, two, being a recognizable face and them understanding that, you know, we are out here doing this, and so therefore they can also get out there, too.
NNAMDILeti, part of your gym is dedicated to making sure older clients, who you call senior fitizens, feel comfortable working out. What challenges do older folks have in participating in something like cycling, and how do you approach a workout with an older client like me differently?
LONGWell, I think the biggest challenge is aging myths, the assumption that the body declines every year, just because it does. A lot of that research -- and then there's also -- so, in that space, aging myths, there's research, and then there's opinion. And so what I do, you know, everything -- I like science, and so my clients know that everything is evidence-based. I look at the science. I also look at now, because of baby boomers, we have a lot more science on adults that are active after age 40. The science wasn't really there before.
LONGAnd so they know when they come in, my expectations, my goals for them are no different than for my millennials, because there's so much evidence that says people at 50, 40, 60 and 70 are still breaking records.
NNAMDIHow does the lack of fitness options geared to older people of color affect these communities?
LONGWell, you know, I think we have -- and, you know, when I opened up Wired, part of the reason I went into Ward 5 was because of the kind of health overall epidemiology research I looked at. I think there's a couple of things we're facing, where access is one thing, but also owners, people in this industry understanding Maslow's hierarchy. So, if people don't have basic physiological needs met, if they don't have safety needs met, how does that affect motivation?
LONGAnd when you talk about resolutions, those are -- people say, well, resolutions don't work. They don't work if you have barriers. And those, even with people -- so you have, you know, the five stages of Maslow's, so do they have community, do they have -- are they feeling welcome? There's so many things that affect people, even if we open gyms. You know, even if we use our local rec site centers, are we looking at the kind of needs that people need?
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Bianca Russo, founder of Body Positive Boot Camp. Bianca, thank you for joining us.
BIANCA RUSSOHey, good afternoon. Thank you so much. I just want to...
NNAMDI(overlapping) What is Body Positive Boot Camp, and who are your typical clients?
RUSSOBody Positive Boot Camp is a personal training service, and it's thanks to independent gyms like Fit 360 DC in Mount Pleasant that allow my personal training service to operate. The primary clientele that I serve are people in the LGBT community, and also people of size. And if I can just go off and start by saying that LGBT -- did you know, Kojo, the LGBT community is not even counted in the US Census? Now, needless to say, the experience of a queer or trans or non-binary person is not taken into consideration in most -- in the ethos of most companies, needless to say these fitness -- the design of gyms. So, I started Body Positive Boot Camp to center these people, to center the voices of people who deserve access to wellness, just like everybody else.
NNAMDIWhat -- as you pointed out, the fitness scene may not always be welcoming for trans or gender-nonconforming residents. What kind of things are you especially aware of when it comes to working out with queer clients?
RUSSOSome of the basics of welcoming someone in that community is just asking questions. I start off by asking everybody what their pronouns are. I also am so privileged to work out of Fit 360 DC because they have non-gendered individual bathrooms and changing rooms. It's just having an awareness of how to respectfully communicate with this community, so that they feel welcome before they even set foot in the gym.
NNAMDIWhat can the fitness community at large, Bianca, do to better welcome queer Washingtonians?
RUSSOI think that the two guys that spoke earlier were a perfect example of everything that's absolutely wrong and evil about a lot of fitness businesses right now. Those guys need to buzz off. That was the perfect example of what makes so many people feel uncomfortable and welcome in the gym. Guess what? With Body Positive Boot Camp and my affirming program, the queer, large-bodied people are going to feel like they finally have a space where they're allowed to work out.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly here, but thank you for sharing your story with us, Bianca.
RUSSOYes, absolutely. Any gym that thinks that the perfect client is the one that doesn't come can buzz off. It's time to change the fitness scene.
NNAMDIHere is Mian in Vienna, Virginia. Mian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIANYes, hi. I just wanted to add to the conversation, you know, the dilemma that many Muslim women who wear hijabs face when it comes to exercising in these public spaces. I practice Pilates at a studio, and my teacher is a Muslim woman who holds Pilates for women only, so that they can come, they can uncover their head and move about freely. And so I just think that's an interesting dilemma. I personally don't cover my head, but a lot of them, you know, face that issue where they can't just walk into a gym and take off their hijab and start exercising. But they're active women who are fit and want to be active. You know, I do know now there's companies like Nike who are creating breathable hijabs for them to exercise in, but I just didn't hear that as part of the conversation...
NNAMDI(overlapping) And I'm glad you added that to the conversation, because the whole conversation is really about what inclusivity looks like and what all we need to do. But we're just about out of time, so thank you for your call. Ashlee Lawson, thank you for joining us.
LAWSONThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd Leticia Long, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Bianca Russo, thank you for joining us. Today's conversation on the shutdown was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Our discussion on local gyms and fitness was produced by Ruth Tam. Coming up tomorrow, how are local charities and food banks mobilizing to assist furloughed workers during the federal shutdown? Plus, we hear about the play "American Moor, " which explores diversity in the theater scene and tells the story of a black actor auditioning for the role of Shakespeare's "Othello" in front of a white director. That all starts tomorrow at noon.
NNAMDIIn case you missed it, during my 20th anniversary year on WAMU, I've been visiting parts of the Washington region, hearing what you have to say about the issues that matter to you. Check out a video of the time I stopped by Gallery Place and interviewed street musicians about the local noise ordinance. You can find that at kojoshow.org/blog. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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