The Have Heart program conducts a Zumba class at the Robinson Theater Community Arts Center. Photo by Issac Harrell
Electronic dance music reverberates through Robinson Theater Community Arts Center as about 50 people mirror Zumba instructor Kelly Ortiz' aerobic dance moves.
"It's definitely an energetic group," Ortiz says of the participants in Have Heart, a health and wellness initiative that holds free group fitness classes including Zumba, yoga, boot camp and Pilates in Mosby, Whitcomb, Creighton and Fairfield courts.
"All I want to do is have people sweat for an hour," owner Ed Edge says of the organization, which is dedicated to reducing preventable diseases through proper diet and exercise.
According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese. Obesity increases the risk for chronic conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and certain cancers. More than 75 percent of health care costs in the United States are related to preventable chronic conditions, according to the CDC.
The Diabetes Prevention Program clinical trial, led by the National Institutes of Health, has shown that getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity and losing 5 percent to 7 percent of a person's body weight can reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 58 percent among those who are at a higher risk of the disease, such as African-Americans and low-income women.
In May, Have Heart teamed with the city's existing free fitness program Rock!Richmond, which has been operating in Richmond's public housing projects since 1997, to provide two classes per week in each neighborhood. Rock!Richmond provides low-impact group fitness instruction at churches, schools and community centers throughout the city.
"While that's great and continues to serve an important need for folks who wouldn't be able to afford or necessarily even culturally pursue group exercise otherwise, it has led to a flatlining in terms of participation," says Dr. Danny Avula, deputy director of the Richmond City Health District. Edge hopes to increase the effectiveness of the classes by offering more strenuous aerobic sessions taught by certified instructors with at least three years of experience. Almost all of the instructors work at one of the Richmond YMCA branches or at a Gold's Gym.
"We're trying to shift the culture of physical activity," Avula says. In the fall, he will lead efforts to gather specific data on participants' body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and weight changes over the course of the classes, which meet in 10-week segments. He hopes to use the data to generate tangible evidence for the programs' effectiveness that they can use toward obtaining grants. Currently, all of the funding for the Have Heart classes comes directly from Edge.
The 25-year-old paramedic, who works 72 hours a week in Fredericksburg, Charlottesville and Petersburg, has set aside $34,000, more than half of his yearly income, to cover payroll and insurance costs for Have Heart. He also set up an online fundraising page (indiegogo.com/haveheart) for additional support. He had the idea to develop the program while working as a paramedic in the city of Richmond. "We were their primary-care physicians," Edge says of the patients involved in ambulance calls that mostly came from public housing communities. "I'm not getting any bigger, but my patients are getting bigger, and my back is starting to hurt more."
Edge lives out of a duffle bag and saves money on rent by living in the storage space for RVA Vegan, his food-cart business. He pays for essentials on $550 per month; almost all of his money goes toward food and membership at the YMCA, where he showers. All of the profits from the vegan food cart go directly to Have Heart.
"It's not glamorous, but it saves me several hundred dollars per month," Edge says of his living arrangement. It has also allowed Have Heart to host more than 100 fitness classes since May — a promising start for the program.
"There's nothing to hold us back," Edge says.