Before the winter of 2020, Carola Leiva regularly worked out at two gyms near her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She especially liked the Zumba classes.
Then, along came the pandemic, and the gyms all closed.
Fitness is “really, really important” to the Chilean-born product manager in a software company who is also a board member of the Boston chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA).
“You feel better, more motivated, healthy, actually working out and doing something for your body,” she said.
At home, Leiva said she tried using apps and lifting weights. Several weeks later, she found a simple, more appealing alternative – on walks or hikes.
“I tried to do more outside, (on) my own,” she said.
Even if it was for less time than at the gym, and even if it was challenging during the New England winter, Leiva was going for walks or hikes several days a week before travelling to Chile to visit family for the holidays.
Her experience reflects how many Latinos keep trying to stay fit in the time of COVID-19.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected Latinos in the United States, and the loss of fitness opportunities is important for a community already challenged by health issues.
Escuela de Fuerza
Awareness of the need for Latinos to move, even in a pandemic, is nationwide:
- Dan Cruz, director of external communications for the YMCA of San Diego County in California, managed to run a personal best in a marathon after COVID-19 cancelled 26.2-mile races for over a year. At his day job, he helped a diverse community of constituents understand continuously changing pandemic protocols.
- In New York City, Colombian native Cástulo “Cas” Castro now joins tai chi sessions at a local park when not teaching fitness classes online and in person, including at the Long Island City Y.
- The Special Olympics debuted a first-of-its-kind Spanish-language campaign to promote fitness for Latino athletes with intellectual disabilities during the pandemic.
“Going into the new year, we certainly expect it to just take off,” said Dr. Alicia Bazzano, chief health officer of the Special Olympics.
The campaign, “Escuela de Fuerza” – School of Strength – includes workout videos featuring five Special Olympics athletes and Major League Baseball stars Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees and Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs. In one video, Texas-based athlete Abigail Zamorano shows how to do exercises such as squats and jumping jacks.
Since the pandemic, “I do not go out as much as I used to,” Zamorano said, adding that when she does, she is “masked up, always wearing a mask.” She noted that it is “pretty tiring to go outside for a walk or run.”
“We see with our athletes globally during Covid, there’s a real sense of isolation, a sense they will not be able to do the activities they wanted to, not be as physically active,” Bazzano added. “If we can’t offer in-person (activity), we offer it virtually so athletes can get that activity in,” she added “It’s not only a sort of physical health, it’s also for mental health.”
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Bazzano is concerned about recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) findings that indicate “the Latino population is getting hospitalised more frequently than the rest of the (US) population due to Covid. We want to make sure it’s as healthy as possible.”
According to the CDC, Latinos are two and a half times likelier than whites to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and more likely to die from the coronavirus.
“We certainly saw our Hispanic and Latinx populations disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Shreela Sharma, a professor of epidemiology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “They have a much higher positive test rate as a subpopulation across all of the waves” in Texas, which is now in its fifth wave.
Dr. Juan Jaime de Zengotita, medical director of the Boston-based South Jamaica Plain Health Center, said, “I think, depending on where you look, there is some evidence that … Latinx people are at higher risk of some conditions like diabetes.” That’s also noted by the CDC, which reported that Latinos overall are 17% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than “non-Hispanic whites.”
De Zengotita’s patients are 40% to 50% Latino or Spanish-speaking, and during the pandemic, “because people have been staying home a lot more, physical activity has gone down,” he said. “As a result, we’ve seen a lot of people gain weight, a lot of diabetes actually got worse. We’ve seen some people who were prediabetic become diabetic.”
De Zengotita explained that exercise has many benefits: “I think exercise strengthens muscles and bones, helps reduce the risk of injury and arthritis. It’s certainly shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Exercise is one of the factors that help prevent dementia or memory loss. I encourage people to do it.”
Get Out There!
For exercise to be effective, it “has to include something (that leaves you) a little bit out of breath and makes you sweat a little bit, 15 minutes a day,” added Dr. Isaac Dapkins – chief medical officer of the NYU Langone Health Family Health Center in heavily-Latino Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The recommendations for physical activity are 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And, Dapkins said, “if you don’t feel comfortable going to the gym, for various reasons, maybe try to do other types of exercises outdoors.”
Luis Villa, executive director of the national nonprofit Latino Outdoors, has seen new interest in his organization’s goal of getting Latinos outdoors..
When the pandemic hit, “we saw those high visitation numbers in outdoor places. People understood intuitively that we need to maintain contact with the outdoors,” he said.
During the pandemic, Latino Outdoors has set records for the number of people who joined its volunteer leadership program, “Crecemos Outdoors.” They included San Francisco Bay Area resident and veteran hiker Ruby Aguirre-Gutierrez.
“With the pandemic, we have to become trouble-shooters,” Aguirre-Gutierrez said. “The land is there for us to access it … If you go for a walk, your blood pressure is likely to go down. It can be 10, 15, 30 minutes a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s uphill or downhill. We have to become solution-focused, creative. It’s how we need to keep our bodies moving throughout the pandemic.”
Yet Maritza Oropeza Kritz, a volunteer leader and educator whose involvement with Latino Outdoors dates back to 2015, worries about the social impact of COVID-19 on her local chapter in Portland, Ore.
“I have personally seen a drastic decline in interest in our chapter,” she said, adding, “People were rightfully wary of engaging with strangers. As most people are aware, black and brown people have been affected disproportionately by Covid. This has left them more economically vulnerable, with less opportunity to engage with groups like ours.”
Her own path through the pandemic leaves room for others to follow.
Like most people, my outdoor activities cratered in the beginning of the pandemic,” Oropeza Kritz said. “For a long time, my outdoor activities consisted of long walks in my neighborhood after work or short bike rides. After six months of my life being dominated by work and isolation at home, I started to organize small outdoor spaced events. The outings were extremely small due to state and Latino Outdoors policies, but we made the most of it.”