Physical activity a good investment during a pandemic

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett, Special to the Herald

When I first moved to Brownsvillein 1991, almost thirty years ago, there was literally one falling down private gym. There were virtually no walking or bicycle trails or infrastructure to speak of and sidewalks were a rarity. When I would cautiously ride my bike to work, at that time my only form of transportation, cars would honk and angrily yell “get off the road”! There were no hike and bike trails, or even bike lanes. There were very few parks, and the parks we had were pretty neglected.

Desperate for a place to exercise, I started offering free aerobics classes at the community center where I worked in the Cameron Park neighborhood. Women flocked to the free class, not because I had much skill as an instructor, but because for many of them, it was the first time they were ever invited to a safe space to exercise. Many of these women spent every weekend watching their husbands and sons play soccer, but they never felt invited to partake in  exercise for their own well-being.

As the years went by, many local Community Health Workers, (often referred to as promotoras/es) became involved in offering free exercise classes in neighborhoods, at churches and schools. A local demand was created for Zumba© (Latin dance), and the City of Brownsville even broke two Guinness World Records© for the largest Zumba© classes. Walking groups were started in local parks providing much needed social support for exercise and a place to promote other health initiatives like screenings and education. Some of the participants in these groups grew their own small businesses gaining certification to teach Zumba©, aerobics, kickboxing and yoga.

When the local University of Texas School of Public Health data revealed that the Rio Grande Valley had some of the highest obesity rates in the nation, and consequently the highest rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and depression, public officials began to pay attention.

A grassroots movement was responsible for encouraging leaders to support a more physically active community. There were some individual champions backed by dozens of regular people striving for healthier lifestyle options, for themselves, their children and their neighbors. Brownsville and other cities began to pass polices to support residents to make easier healthy choices like smoking ordinances and complete streets policies, which require any new construction or street repair to include a sidewalk, bike lane, and accessibility for pedestrians.

People also became more active through the free weight loss events which literally grew a cottage fitness industry, allowing small gyms, trainers, boot camps, cycling and running clubs get their feet wet and draw customers through city-sponsored events like The Challenge-RGV and CycloBia in Brownsville and Viva Streets in Harlingen. Several bike shops opened as a result since more people were exposed to the joy of riding a bicycle for transportation, leisure and fitness. Smaller towns and cities in Cameron County began participating in health efforts as well. The region now has a robust fitness scene, with many gyms, and cycling and running events scheduled every weekend (pre-COVID).

As expected there have been naysayers along the way—people who said green spaces, trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and infrastructure to help even the poorest people be more active would never happen here, would never be used, or were not worth the investment. Fast forward to 2020—the trails and parks are full and brimming with activity. The gyms are innovating to deal with the pandemic, and are surviving and some are even thriving. Sales of bicycles and other fitness equipment have gone through the roof and local sporting goods stores and specialty bike shops can’t keep up with local demand. There are many fitness options available now locally, some free and others for a fee.

Research shows that return on investment is high for expanding access to safe places to exercise for everyone by reducing costs of healthcare and improving quality of life. It may seem misplaced to talk about increasing investment in physical activity during a pandemic, however, it may be one of the most cost effective and enduring responses available to us right now.

Recent research is showing physical activity’s potential role in reducing the severity of COVID-19 infections as well as stress and anxiety associated with it. There is an abundance of evidence that increasing physical activity reduces the underlying health conditions that cause complications and increase death rates from COVID-19, like obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Physical activity, especially outdoors, is directly linked to improved outcomes among people who suffer from chronic depression and anxiety. Because older people have disrupted cortisol physiology and weaker immune systems, physical activity may be particularly important for this large population at high risk for COVID-19.

Our city incentive corporations, MPOs,and other public/private entities making decisions about where to invest in our local economy should consider the impact of the relatively low-cost of the following:

  1. Connected, regional hike, bike and paddling trail networks like Cara Cara Trails in Cameron County, and promotion of shifting more highway transportation dollars from solely automobile based to infrastructure that promotes active transport (bus, bike, walking infrastructure);
  2. Entrepreneurial and small business opportunities (grants and loans) for local residents that cater to the exercise and the outdoor recreation industry directed to tourists and local markets;
  3. Use of 4A economic development sales tax, development impact fees, vehicle, gas and other fees and taxes to generate income for jobs and small businesses catering to active living and quality of life infrastructure;
  4. Existing city and county parks including maintenance, security and creative, socially distanced programming to get families outside and physically active;
  5. Open streets programming and events like CycloBia, Viva Streets and other regularly scheduled events that close specific streets to cars during low traffic hours and encourage safe use by pedestrians, expanding public space without the cost of new infrastructure.

Relatively small investment in infrastructure to support active transportation and physical activity in low and medium-income neighborhoods has shown enormous return on investment by reducing healthcare costs and increasing the livability of communities. Investment in this infrastructure also has the added benefit of being attractive to our young adults who’ve left the RGV for college and work, and provides incentive to larger companies looking for communities with higher quality of life to relocate or recruit higher paid employees to the area.

I encourage RGV leaders to invest now in exercise promoting programs, infrastructure and policies, so our families can increase their access to what many medical researchers now refer to as the “magic pill” that is physical activity. Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)