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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Body Language | A Boost For Latinas' Bodies, Spirits Motivated Many To Get Moving

By Art Carey

August 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Aracelis Velazquez told a fib.

She claimed she'd dropped a ton of weight since she began exercising a year ago July.

"How much?" I asked.

"Maybe 50, 55 pounds?"

"Which is it?" I pressed.

Velazquez wasn't sure.

We were at Watts Fitness Studio on North Fifth Street, near Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia. There was a scale a few paces away.

"This is your moment of truth, Aracelis."

Velazquez stepped on the scale. The arrow settled on 117. A year ago, Velazquez, 58, weighed 184. Total loss: 67 pounds.

"You lied to me!" I exclaimed. "Congratulations!"

Velazquez began working out because she thought she was "going to blow up." Lugging around nearly 70 extra pounds had taken its toll. Her knees were so arthritic she needed a walker. Her heart was burdened by high blood pressure.

Determined to regain her health, Velazquez showed up at a neighborhood rec center, where she began moving her body - to a beat.

Peter Watts was the instructor, and the class was hot, hot, hot - which is to say, salsa aerobics. It was sponsored by the Women's Center of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, which provides an array of social services to the Latino community.

She attended faithfully, three days a week, supplementing her dancing with weight training. She also reformed her diet. "I gave up sugar, soda, chips, junk food," Velazquez said. "Instead of cake, I eat fruit."

Last fall, when Watts opened his own gym in an old parking garage, the salsa-aerobics class moved to a new home, and Velazquez followed.

She was soon joined by many other women. Congreso had teamed up with the Center for Urban Health Policy and Research at Albert Einstein Medical Center and applied for a grant to improve the lives of Latinas through exercise.

Latinas in North Philadelphia need help, says Tina Harralson, a senior scientist with Einstein. They are sedentary and obese. They have heart disease and diabetes. They eat too many carbs, too much fat. Many feel lonely, isolated, blue. Depression, she says, can break your heart in more ways than one.

In concert with Congreso, Harralson, 51, a health psychologist, designed a program, Un Corazon Saludable (A Healthy Heart), consisting of two parts: health education and exercise. She was especially interested in teaching Latinas about cardiovascular health.

Her motivation was partly personal: A heart attack killed her father at age 54. "It was a shock," she says.

As a scientist, Harralson was also interested in gauging outcomes. How would exercise benefit these women? Or, as Harralson put it: "I wanted to confirm that these ladies could do something to feel more confident about their lives."

Watts, 35, a native of Puerto Rico whose muscular presence belies his gentle demeanor and artistic soul, was in charge of the exercise component. Using salsa aerobics as the core, Watts added body-toning exercises with light dumbbells, as well as crunches, squats and lunges. He also taught the women how to improve their flexibility through stretching and how to purge stress and tension through deliberate breathing and total-body relaxation.

About 90 Latinas have gone through the program, which meets three times a week for 12 weeks.

Watts has been impressed. "It's been very, very positive. The ladies have done their part by coming every day, by changing their eating patterns, by stopping bad habits like drinking, smoking, taking drugs.

"When they were heavy, they hated themselves because of the way they looked. Now they're happier, and it's made their relationships better. They tell me they're no longer fighting with their husbands or boyfriends."

Harralson's data support Watts' observations. Though physical changes have been modest, psychological changes have been significant. Latinas who said they were depressed dropped from 51 percent to 13 percent; lonely Latinas fell, 41 percent to 11 percent.

"Clearly, if you want to elevate your mood," Harralson says, "exercise and socialize."

Neither is easy in this section of North Philadelphia. Walking, the most accessible form of exercise, is a risky proposition on these mean streets. That's why Watts Fitness Studio is such a welcome addition.

The place is quirky, funky and dazzlingly imaginative in design and decor (picture a gym as tropical dance club). The guiding principle: low budget (all the equipment was donated), high concept. A crystal chandelier illuminates the steep entrance ramp. Vivid colors have been splashed on the walls. The steel ceiling beams are wrapped in gold-painted foil from the dollar store.

The plywood dance floor is literally a work of art: Real plants were used to stencil the borders. Every month, Watts features work by local artists. His studio has become a Latino gathering spot.

"We don't need another bar or pizza parlor," Watts says. "We need something that will change lives for the better."

Life for Aracelis Velazquez is certainly on the upswing.

"I feel more energetic," she says, "and proud of myself that I reached my goal."

To contact Watts Fitness Studio, call 215-739-9027. For more information about Un Corazon Saludable fitness program, call 215-763-8870 or visit

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