The women, children in tow, arrive on a quiet Thursday morning to the parking lot of KidWorks, a nonprofit community organization west of downtown Santa Ana.

The women line up as their children leave their sides and find one another, playing near the fence at the back of the lot.

Then the music begins.

For the next hour, Spanish-language hits pulsate through the speakers as an instructor leads the class in a dance-based workout called Zumba. After class ends, the women pay a dollar or two each to the instructor.

This is a scene not just playing out in the KidWorks parking lot. Every weekday, some 50-80 people show up for dance-based fitness classes at Latino Health Access, another community organization.

Medical providers are also involved. For example, St. Joseph Health Mission Hospital set up Zumba classes for the underserved in South Orange County. The response was so great that it was starting to feel “as if we were officially in the Zumba business,” said Carla DiCandia, manager of health and ministry services at St. Joseph.

While fitness classes are a given for anyone who can afford a gym membership, they have not always been available to lower-income people, who suffer disproportionately from weight- and obesity-related problems.

But as awareness of the importance of exercise increases, fitness opportunities for people of modest means have begun springing up in Orange County in parking lots, church halls, apartment buildings and even parks. Experts and community leaders hope the result will be better long-term health. They note that the fitness movement is also strengthening neighborhood cohesion and leadership.

“It’s tremendously empowering for the community as a community,” said Ava Steaffens, KidWorks CEO.

Taking Back the Streets

KidWorks has seen remarkable interest in its circuit training and running clubs in addition to Zumba classes, Steaffens said.

“It was about two years ago that we started adding fitness workshops to our curriculum,” Steaffens said. In the high-crime neighborhoods served by KidWorks, “I see the runners in the running club taking back their streets.”

Steaffens added that women in lower-income communities “have a tendency to stay inside apartments or just go to the market, walk back and go straight into their apartments. The Zumba classes are an opportunity to gather as groups of women and do something healthy for themselves.”

Dangerous neighborhoods and vandalized equipment also keep families out of playgrounds, according to DiCandia.

“We know lack of safety is a barrier to fitness,” she said. “Working in San Juan Capistrano, they have playgrounds, but it’s not a safe neighborhood.”

To get more families out of their homes and more active in the outdoors, St. Joseph has organized several walking clubs in disadvantaged neighborhoods in South Orange County. The hope is that residents eventually will assume leadership of the clubs, which now are led by health promoters, that is, lay people trained to educate their communities on health issues.

Passing the torch from health promoters to community members is a strategy that worked with the Zumba classes, DiCandia said. At first, St. Joseph found the locations and handled scheduling and insurance arrangements, but these tasks are now performed by people in the neighborhoods where the classes are held.

Emphasis on Children

Click above to see rates of overweight and obese children in Orange County cities.

Fitness programs that focus on children may yield long-term effects, DiCandia said, since research shows that excess weight and obesity in high school are likely to carry over to adulthood.

St. Joseph employs exercise as a low-cost preventive health strategy compared to diabetes treatment, she said. An estimated 2,000 youth in Orange County under age 18 have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, once commonly known as “adult-onset diabetes.” And childhood obesity is high in Orange County’s poorer neighborhoods.

Surprisingly, research does not always confirm the fitness benefits of some exercise programs. Authors of a recent study on the subject theorized that children in after-school exercise programs might compensate for their workouts by being sedentary the rest of the day or that some programs replace rather than add to the after-school activity they might do on their own. Some programs might have lacked sufficient vigor.

Children playing at Fit to be Kids. (Photo by: Caitlin Whelan)

But Shae Gawlak, who runs a fitness program offering low-cost and free exercise and nutrition classes in Lake Forest, has been able to document significant health improvements.

Every child who takes part in Gawlak’s program, Fit to Be Kids, is measured and weighed and their heart rate tested. The results have been promising. She said that all the children in her Saturday fitness program have shown reductions in girth this year, and a third have dropped significantly in body mass index or BMI, one child dropping six points from near 30, which is considered morbidly obese.

Measuring up at Fit to be Kids. (Photo by: Caitlin Whelan)

Similarly, 86 percent of the low-income children in Dr. Riba’s Fit Club, a summer exercise and nutrition program serving low-income children in Santa Ana, showed improvement in fitness. By the end of the summer, kids could do more situps and pushups, and 73 percent of overweight or obese children either decreased or maintained their BMI.

Fitness programs are especially important, because the cost of organized and high school sports is high. Allison Hickey, executive director of the American Diabetes Association in Costa Mesa, advocates more access to athletics as a preventive measure to ward off obesity and diabetes. She’s felt the sticker shock personally, noting that it costs $1,800 to join the football team at her son’s high school.

“Health has become a benefit of the wealthy in our country,” she said.

Gateway to Nutrition

Tips for better nutrition are part of fitness activities sponsored by health and community organizations. Dr. Patricia Riba, the founder of Dr. Riba’s Fit Club, encourages parents to switch from flour to corn tortillas and give up sugary drinks. Gawlak also talks up better nutrition and have given participants cookbooks with healthful recipes.

Steaffens has found that encouraging people to eat a more healthful diet is a message better received after people become serious about increasing their physical activity and that group exercise has a more immediate allure than nutrition classes.

“Exercise is a gateway to good nutrition,” she said. “It’s much easier to get folks to come together and start moving together, whether it’s lifting weights or Zumba or running … and then as you start feeling better about yourself and your body, you want to put good nutrients into it.”

Exercising at KidWorks changed the life of Alfredo Padilla of Santa Ana. He once weighed 240 pounds but is down to 170 after two years of working out and developing more healthful eating habits. He is now the health and fitness coordinator at KidWorks and working toward a certification as a personal trainer.

A potent motivator for Padilla was seeing a number of family members suffer from diabetes. Now his goal is to motivate others, a process he began when he improved his own fitness, according to Steaffens.

“Not only did he lose the weight, but he became a leader,” said Steaffens, who is his supervisor. “Youth and adults were looking to him for guidance.”

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine literary journalism program. You can reach her directly at

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