Chicago fitness effort gains steam from industry participation

Fueled by the commitment of several fitness industry players, the Chicago WorksOut grassroots fitness initiative is working to bump Chicago up from the tail end of the "most unfit" cities list -- mostly recently organizing a "Chicago Moves Day" in May that attracted 500 people.
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Fueled by the commitment of several fitness industry players, the Chicago WorksOut grassroots fitness initiative is working to bump Chicago up from the tail end of the "most unfit" cities list -- mostly recently organizing a "Chicago Moves Day" in May that attracted 500 people.

The program -- run by the all-volunteer Mayor's Fitness Council with members appointed by Chicago Mayor (and fitness enthusiast) Richard M. Daley -- includes representatives from area industry big guns such as Life Fitness, Bally Total Fitness, The Fitness Experience, Equinox, Women's Workout World and the YMCA, as well as those from other metro businesses, hospitals, associations, schools and professional sports teams.

The council, which kicked off in January 2003 (see SNEWS® story July 17, 2003), has defined its mission "to promote, encourage and motivate the development of a physically active and healthy lifestyle for Chicagoans."

"Chicago WorksOut is all about establishing awareness of ways to improve health and fitness," Colleen Lammel-Harmon, senior fitness program specialist for the Chicago Park District and co-chair of the program and the Mayor's Fitness Council, told SNEWS®. "It is more than just a program. It is a coalition of organizations and individuals coming forth to get Chicago moving."

Where do we start?
If only it were that simple, the members discovered. Initially, the council struggled a bit to find its footing with Chicago WorksOut (CWO) -- particularly since the mayor's office didn't have any money to fund programs or ideas.

"At first there really was no direction as to what we would do," said Ingrid Kromer, Midwest field marketing director for Bally Total Fitness and a MFC member, "and we needed to figure out who we were and form ideas that are calls-to-action."

Forget charging out and just encouraging people to workout. Getting started included bureaucratic-like tasks such as writing council policies and procedures, appointing officers and creating committees for communications, youth, events and media, as well as sorting through ideas.

"The biggest challenge is we've had so many great ideas that it has been hard to pare them down," said Jo Ann Seager, senior director of marketing services for Life Fitness and a council member. "We want the best way to go about this and make a real impact, and everyone has been very active and cooperative."

Now, there's a website (www.chicagoworksout.com), which has maps of all park district walking trails; an "Ask the Fitness Expert" website section and a database of local fitness events; Chicago WorksOut signs in all district parks with the distance of running/cycling paths; an upgrade 12 of 35 park district fitness centers; a biweekly fitness/nutrition article in the Chicago Sun-Times; and a speakers bureau for the community to call on for events.

Lammel agreed that the volunteer group has accomplished a lot through in-kind donations and teamwork because, as she puts it, "We're not necessarily about reinventing the wheel, but more about sharing the wheel."

Presence at existing events
That means having CWO establish a presence at existing events sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Special Events, such as the grand opening of the new Soldier Field last September, where 5,000 attendees who completed seven boot camp stations earned a free T-shirt and a Life Fitness "Smart Exercise Guide."

CWO also hosted a "Fitness Zone" at the annual three-day free city Sportsfest in December, where council member Life Fitness set up a complete gym, several health clubs conducted various health screenings and fitness classes, and a running shoe store sponsored a 50-yard dash.

At the spring opening of the downtown farmer's market in April, the council held a nutrition and fitness presentation. That was a harbinger of several more like it, one of which will run this summer in conjunction with fitness classes for two days during the city's huge annual Taste of Chicago food festival.

To have at least one event to call its own, CWO launched "Chicago Moves Day" on May 5, which drew more than 500 people to participate in various fitness classes, take walks or bike rides, in-line skate, pick up pedometers to try, and sample healthy snacks on Daley Plaza downtown. Local fitness centers, including Bally and Fitness Formula's Multiplex clubs, also opened their doors for free guest visits that day.

Model for other communities
Although proud of its progress with Chicago WorksOut, the Mayor's Council recognizes that lifestyle changes are a long process and that tangibly measuring results of its efforts is a gray area.

"It's our long-term goal to track success, and eventually we'd like to host a citywide health fair each year where we do screenings and distribute activity logs -- then we could better watch progress," said Lammel.

But, in the meantime, Lammel said, every little bit the group does helps.

"Chicago WorksOut is the umbrella, and we hope our logo will symbolize every program, event, facility or recreational sport that includes physical activity. CWO is a stamp of approval to moving toward better health!"

Encouraged by nearly a year and a half of activity, council members said they hope their initiative might be copied elsewhere.

"Awareness is building, and things are changing slowly," said Kromer. "I think we're seeing more genuine concern among the industry to do its part to help improve health and fitness in our nation."

Life Fitness' Seager agreed: "This is something that we have a responsibility as a corporation to do. The industry is starting to get a social conscience, and I surely hope that others would take part in endeavors like this -- it's about time."

SNEWS® View: SNEWS® has seen and reported on many of these local initiatives -- from Texas and Michigan to small towns like Grass Valley in Northern California -- as the concern about obesity nationwide escalates. We commend Chicago for its ongoing efforts and enthusiasm. Saying you're going to do something is one thing. Doing it, then sticking to it is another. Although brand exposure definitely plays a role here, both Bally and Life Fitness said that their participation really wasn't just about selling more memberships or equipment, but rather saw it as a duty to their communities. No reason why other areas couldn't embrace a similar initiative. Imagine the impact if more industry manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and clubs just took even a few steps toward enhancing awareness about fitness in their own communities. And it doesn't have to be complicated or detailed to have an impact -- as evidenced by small steps taken despite the lumbering start weighed down by big-city bureaucracy in Chicago. Dedication kept it rolling and momentum will help it roll faster. Sure, it's an altruistic effort, but it's also about the bottom line.

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