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Pete Garcia spent several years as a personal trainer in San Antonio, learning first-hand that many residents in at-risk parts of the city struggled with obesity and related health problems.
So when Garcia became the city’s supervisor of athletics and programs, he wanted to develop and implement programs that would increase access to physical activity opportunities for at-risk residents across the city.
With grant funding and the city’s formation of the Mayor’s Fitness Council a few years ago, Garcia was able to capitalize on partnerships and collaboration to develop the “Fitness in the Park” program to provide free fitness classes in parks in each of the city’s 10 council districts.
San Antonio Inactive and Unhealthy
Pete Garcia worked for many years as a personal trainer in San Antonio (68% Latino) helping clients improve their overall health and fitness.
Garcia saw many in the Latino community struggle with physical inactivity, obesity, and chronic disease.
In 2010, 65.7% of San Antonio residents were obese or overweight. Almost half the population (49.7%) did not meet minimum national recommendations for weekly physical activity for adults (150 minutes per week—regardless of weight status—to improve health and reduce risk for disease), and 25% reported not having participated in physical any activity in the past month.
Many local Latinos live in at-risk areas—subsectors of the city with high obesity and diabetes rates and few physical activity opportunities, such as parks, health clubs, fitness programs, and sports fields and courts—and face barriers to accessing physical activity, including cost, logistics, lack of transportation, lack of childcare, programming that is not linguistically or culturally relevant, and poor marketing and educational outreach.
Garcia knew he wanted to become a bigger part of the overall health picture and make a difference in San Antonio.
His goal was for everyone to be more active and healthy.
In 2009, under Director of Health Dr. Fernando A. Guerra, the San Antonio Metro Health Department (SAMHD) applied for and received the 2010-2012 Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant for $15.6 million through the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CPPW grant, which aims to make healthy living easier by promoting local healthy environmental changes, enabled SAMHD to hire multiple new positions, including Maggie Thompson as health program coordinator.
Garcia applied for and was hired as SAMHD’s first Athletics Programs Supervisor, a CPPW-enabled position.
In 2010, CPPW team members met regularly to discuss data and brainstorm the most effective programs and environmental changes to make physical activity easier. They know the many benefits of physical activity, including reduced risk of disease and improvements in physiological biomarkers, as well as the harms of physical inactivity, such as increased risk of hypertension, dislipidemia, metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, digestive system problems, and musculoskeletal problems.
“The CPPW grant really opened my eyes to the high diabetes rates and how people live in food deserts and don’t have access to places to be physically active,” Garcia said. “In my own city, people really don’t have access to certain things to live healthy lives.”
The CPPW team wanted to reduce Latino health disparities by reducing inequity in access to health resources and physical activity opportunities at the environmental level.
They had a lot of ideas, but many were complex and could take years to develop.
What could they do immediately?
Developing New Program with Existing Relationships
Garcia started to develop relationships with local health entities like the YMCA of Greater San Antonio (YMCA) as he served on the Mayor’s Fitness Council (MFC), a group of public and private representatives appointed in 2010 by then-Mayor Julián Castro to work together to help the city improve health and physical activity. During an MFC meeting in 2011, someone mentioned seeing group fitness classes in public parks while vacationing in Europe.
Everyone at the meeting liked the idea of free fitness classes in public parks and wondered if it could be done in San Antonio.
Garcia shared the idea with the CPPW team, too.
Could the SAMHD/CPPW team establish a program that provides free fitness classes in public places?
Garcia looked at parks across the city to determine which locations had parking, restrooms, water fountains, shade, playscapes, and courts or fields.
“I figured a mom would show up to classes in a park if there was something for the kids to do,” Garcia said. “If the child didn’t want to do the fitness class, they could go play on the playscape or go play basketball.”
Garcia also wanted to ensure they chose parks across the city to provide equity.
So he reached out to the city’s Parks & Recreation Department (Parks Department), who also had representatives serving on the MFC, and worked with Veronica Moreno, Special Projects Manager with the Parks Department, to identify parks. Moreno even suggested establishing at least one park in each of the city’s 10 council districts. She provided Garcia contact information for councilmembers he would need to talk to and helped reserve facilities on the parks schedule and waived reservation fees.
Garcia needed to find volunteers to instruct the proposed fitness classes.
He envisioned a seasonal program because he thought most San Antonio residents would not participate in outdoor fitness classes during the summer. This lessened the commitment he was asking of volunteers.
Louis Lopez, District Vice President for the YMCA, who was also a member of the MFC, volunteered YMCA staff to instruct fitness classes if they were located near a YMCA facility.
Garcia began looking into parks that were located near YMCAs. He found Rosedale Park near Westside YMCA, Lions Field Park near D.R. Semmes YMCA, and O.P. Schnabel Park near Braundera YMCA, which were all located in different council districts.
“The YMCA has facilities in most districts, and many are close to or connected to a park,” Garcia said.
Garcia also turned to his colleagues and friends and local gyms and personal trainers to volunteer. ReShape to Live, a health, fitness, and wellness trainer also involved with the MFC, had already established free boot camps for the community and agreed to partner with Garcia and instruct a couple classes per week.
Being endorsed by MFC and Mayor Castro carried a lot of weight.
“It added fuel to the fire, and people listened to me and were supportive,” Garcia said.
Fitness in the Park officially launched in early 2011 with parks selected and volunteer instructors to provide San Antonio residents with free and accessible physical activity opportunities.
“I brought them all together on one schedule and hired someone to go door-to-door to drop off schedules,” Garcia said.
Garcia and Lopez knew that marketing door-to-door would also benefit the YMCA because they were marketing in neighborhoods near the parks, many of which were near YMCA facilities.
The first Fitness in the Park classes officially launched in March 2011.
In fall 2011, Garcia, the CPPW team, the YMCA, and numerous volunteers reactivated to launch the second season of Fitness in the Park.
Because CPPW funding was temporary, Garcia was planning a career move to the YMCA to focus on another physical activity initiative, Síclovía, a free event that turns major city streets in to a safe place for people to exercise and play. Garcia, CPPW staff, and MFC stakeholders wondered about the sustainability of the seasonal Fitness in the Park program after CPPW funding would end in 2012.
Fitness in the Park aligns with MFC and SA2020 goals of increasing residents’ activity and reducing obesity, but the program needed leadership without Garcia or CPPW funding
The SAMHD, YMCA, Parks Department, and MFC began to discuss long-term plans for Fitness in the Park.
Seasonal Classes Offered Year-round
With some leftover CPPW funds ($40,000), the San Antonio Parks Department agreed to run the 2012 spring and fall Fitness in the Park sessions under the same format as Garcia/CPPW team’s volunteer-taught classes.
The transition began under Michael Baldwin, an Assistant Manager in the Parks Department.
Baldwin and other Parks Department leaders saw long-term potential in Fitness in the Park when the program hosted 497 classes in over 30 parks with more than 3,500 attendees between the spring and fall of 2012.
They began to consider the program as a year-round venture.
“Because the seasonal program had gone so well, we decided to try to keep it going and apply for funding in the city budget,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin and his team decided to develop two proposals: (1) keep Fitness in the Park going as a seasonal program run by volunteers without much marketing; or (2) expand Fitness in the Park to a year-round program that would include paid Parks staff in addition to volunteers, a volunteer incentive program, as well as funding to implement a marketing plan for re-branding and promoting the program across the city with additional focus on at-risk populations.
“We had programming and advertising experience, but there weren’t any programs like this across the country that we could model ours after,” Baldwin said. “We put the expanded proposal together from scratch.”
Baldwin researched types of easy-to-transport fitness equipment, the type, frequency, and location of potential classes across the 10 council districts, the number of instructors they would need, and marketing incentives and giveaways.
SAMHD staff, Parks Department staff, and city officials helped identify areas that stood out as at-risk areas to prioritize class offerings.
The YMCA continued as a partner, agreeing to offer Fitness in the Park classes in every YMCA branch.
“The Mayors Fitness Council is a perfect example of building partnerships,” Baldwin said. “Because we were involved and building relationships with partner organizations focused on making San Antonio healthier, we were able to easily approach groups about being involved. It’s a collaborative approach, which is why most of our partnerships don’t involve any exchange of money.”
Baldwin and his team had to convince the city that the Fitness in the Park program was a valuable public service that would reach and improve the health of San Antonio residents.
“Fitness classes taking place in parks wasn’t anything new; but the concept of a city department offering numerous classes across the city as a public service was,” Baldwin said.
In May 2012, The Parks Department submitted both proposals to the Mayor, City Manager, and City Council as part of their FY 2013 budget proposal (October 2012-September 2013) asking for $150,000 for the expanded program, which was packaged under neighborhood revitalization efforts.
During the FY 2013 budget process, the City hosted five Community Budget Hearings to inform residents and obtain input.
At these meetings, residents identified Fitness in the Park as a high-priority service.
In September 2012, the City of San Antonio Mayor and City Council approved the FY 2013 (October 2012-September 2013) budget proposal for $132,713 for the Fitness in the Park Program.
This would allow Fitness in the Park to expand from a seasonal to a year-round program.
“So many people laid the groundwork for this happen,” Baldwin said. “Now, Travis and I are making it happen along with our staff and instructors who implement the program day-to-day.”
57,000 Participants in 2015
Baldwin hired a Travis Davey as community services supervisor in 2013 to plan, implement, and maintain daily operations of Fitness in the Park.
Baldwin and Davey didn’t really know what types of classes San Antonio residents wanted or what time of the week would work best. They were focused on balancing a variety of classes among council districts for the entire city and making sure to provide classes in at-risk areas.
“We weren’t trying to teach a specific number of Zumba, yoga, or boot camps,” Davey said. “As we got volunteers and hired staff, we looked at what their specialty was and started offering that in at-risk areas.”
In the spring of 2013, the Parks Department hired its first Fitness in the Park instructor, Amanda Merck, and shortly after their second, Michael Jones.
Numerous businesses and organizations, notably the YMCA, continued to volunteer instructing fitness classes and assist with promotional efforts.
Baldwin and Davey promoted Fitness in the Park in areas with large Latino populations through the local media, such as La Prensa, a bilingual publication, and The Southside Reporter; both are free publications delivered to resident’s doorsteps.
Over five times as many classes were provided in 2013 as 2011, and over 16 times as many in 2014.
The program continues to thrive with dedicated staff, as well as YMCA and other public and private volunteers. The program expanded to over 400 classes per month in 2014, over 500 classes per month in 2015, and over 600 classes in May 2016 alone.
Fitness in the Park classes are offered Monday through Sunday between 5:15 a.m. and 8 p.m. at parks and community centers across the city.
The July 2016 calendar offered the following variety of classes, times, and locations for residents to choose from:
Additional classes that have been offered in the past include: Kids Fit, Pilates, Fitness in the Stadium, Stride for Miles, Strength and Conditioning, Cyclocross, Mommy & Me, Aerobics, Learn and Burn, Gentle Yoga, Hiking, Jazzercise, Chair Yoga, Cycling, Water Aerobics, and Qigong.
Fitness in the Park also hosts periodic specialty classes, such as ones taught in collaboration with local personal trainers, groups, or dignitaries like former San Antonio Spur Antonio Daniels and his wife Sonia in 2015. The program also is involved in health events, such as school health fairs, business health fairs, Health & Fitness Expo, Síclovía, Fit Family Challenge, Million Pound Challenge, and Fit Pass. Fit Pass is a free, city-wide, Parks Department initiative that includes a wide variety of fitness, nutrition, and wellness activities, as part of a summer long fitness scavenger hunt. Activities include Fitness in the Park classes and many more, offered by both the Parks Department and community partner organizations.
Classes are free, so Fitness in the Park does not exclude anyone based on cost.
The purpose of offering such a variety of classes, at multiple times and multiple locations is to accommodate as many different residents as possible based on their unique needs.
“We have worked hard behind the scenes to make sure we get classes in at-risk areas,” Baldwin said.
Physical activity at the population level is influenced when communities are provided with resources and environmental changes that make physical activity easy and accessible. Additionally, access to physical activity opportunities increases cognitive mediating constructs positively associated with self-efficacy, such as observational learning.
Witnessing peers participate in accessible, culturally relevant, fitness programming facilitates observational learning and encourages behavioral capability, and self- efficacy, thus participation.
Fitness in the Park has become one of the most successful programs of the 30 nutrition and physical activity programs that arose from the CPPW initiative in San Antonio.
The program, which offers more than 600 free fitness classes each month, is evaluated through efficiency and effectiveness reporting, quarterly participant surveys, and participant success stories.
The city and City Council also receive high-level program summaries as part of the city’s budget process, as well as monthly class offerings and attendance reports by Council district.
Temporary Program Becomes Permanent
Baldwin and his team developed proposals for continued city funding in FY 2014 and FY 2015.
In FY 2016, funds for Fitness in the Park officially became part of the Parks Department General Budget from the City. This reduces some pressure to develop proposals every year; however, as with all departments and all programs, they continuously have to justify the continued effectiveness of the program.
The Parks Department has built sustainability into the program through partnerships with local organizations as well as through other Parks Department fitness initiatives, such as Troops for Fitness, Fit Pass, and Mobile Fit.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.