Ask any born-and-raised New Orleanian and they’ll tell you: where you grow up matters. The people of this city have always prided themselves on their neighborhoods, whether it’s Broadmoor or Treme, the French Quarter or Holly Grove.
Although the historical and cultural differences among each slice of the Crescent City are numerous, one major health statistic — unique to New Orleans — stood out to local entrepreneur Adam Mejerson.
“There is a 20-year life expectancy difference between Treme and Uptown,” Mejerson says. “If you’re born in the seventh ward, your average life expectancy is 55-years old, whereas if you’re born closer to river in Uptown, you may live to 75. Twenty years within neighborhoods is unheard of.”
Mejerson is the co-founder and executive director of FitLot, a nonprofit organization in New Orleans committed to helping neighborhoods find resources to plan, build and program outdoor fitness parks.
These parks, which began popping up in cities around the world in the last 15 years, take the benefits of indoor exercise training and make them free and accessible to the public.
As an intern for community organizer and now-City Councilmember LaToya Cantrell, Mejerson noticed the ubiquity of blighted properties and vacant lots in the Broadmoor neighborhood and felt that these spaces presented an incredible opportunity.
So when Mejerson and his father were strolling along the picturesque Mediterranean Sea on the coast of Israel four years ago, the two stopped in their tracks when then they ran into an outdoor fitness park.
Mejerson says he quickly realized this type of perfect for New Orleans, a city with each major health issues and an overwhelming number of blighted properties and vacant lots. Subsequently, Mejerson set forth to repurpose these unused lots into free outdoor gyms.
“If you can get people to treat themselves healthier,” he says, “that’s the best and easiest thing to do as a community. Just to take the walls off the gym makes it easy for anybody to use it and it’s less intimidating.”
FitLot is currently planning the first of its three initial parks at the Sojourner Truth Community Center located on the Lafitte Greenway in Treme. Whole Foods has helped sponsor the park and Mejerson said his team will collaborate with the Refresh Project, a non-profit organization which provides community engaged programming, education and training designed to promote the health and wellness of surrounding communities.
Each park will have 8-12 pieces of fitness equipment. The machines vary from cardio to resistance workouts and don’t involve a single weight. Rather, these machines — which Mejerson says are virtually maintenance-free — use the weight of each individual, making them safer and easier to use than a typical gym machine.
There is a strong emphasis, he explains, on getting the community behind the project from the very beginning.
“Our goal is to engage the neighborhood throughout the planning process,” he says. “We want to go to them for their input throughout the planning stages so that we know exactly what equipment they want, how to landscape the space and just make them a part of this process.”
This hands-on role for the community includes a build day where volunteers from the neighborhood help install the fitness equipment, something Mejerson says is crucial for the success of the fitness parks.
“This creates ownership and responsibility over the space,” he says. “It makes it feel like something that they built for themselves. Because I think that’s really how you get people to actually use it.”
After the equipment is installed and the fitness park is ready for use, FitLot will remain actively engaged with the park. Each completed park will come with a neighborhood coach who, for 15-20 hours a week, will teach people how to use the machines and answer fitness-related questions.
But these won’t be your average, run-of-the-mill personal trainers. Mejerson has partnered with Coaches Across America to train military veterans in personal training. Canaan Heard, a marine sergeant reserve and Tulane physiology student, will be the first neighborhood coach.Canaan will begin hosting free training sessions at the fitness park in City Park starting in January 2015.
“With my dad’s military background, I definitely have an appreciation for military folks as example of strength and wellness and leadership,” Mejerson says about using veterans for his organization. “These are people who have already done this type of training and are super familiar with it. I thought it was a perfect fit.”
FitLot’s goal is to create a bike-able network of outdoor fitness parks that connect Lake Pontchartrain with the Mississippi River. In the next five to ten years, he believes, fitness parks will start popping up all around the United States.
For the FitLot co-founder, a lack of funding should be no excuse for communities committed to change.
“Outdoor fitness parks should be as common as a playground or a water fountain,” he says. “There’s no reason not to. If it’s only money, then that’s the worse excuse ever. There’s money for everything; you might as well invest in things that will take us to a better place.”
To find out more information, get involved or become a sponsor please visit FitLot.org.