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Weighty Resolutions 

Fitness in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Gained a few pounds since Hurricane Katrina? Feeling out of shape? Join the chubby crowd.

Local fitness and nutrition experts say many New Orleanians threw to the curb like so many discarded refrigerators their eating and workout schedules. They say it's time to begin rebuilding your good health and filling your new fridge with nutritious foods.

No one blames hurricane evacuees for putting on weight. Displacement forced people out of their routines. Health clubs and other places to work out were closed indefinitely. Families who normally planned their meals through weekly stops at the grocery store found themselves grasping for whatever was available: fast food, MREs, which are laden with calories, or the casseroles and starch-rich pasta dishes of food-service lines like those of the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Often those who could least afford it were experiencing weight gain.

Margaret Sciacca, clinical nutrition manager at East Jefferson General Hospital's Food/Nutrition Services Department, teaches people how to eat healthy. Many of her outpatient clients suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Choosing the right foods is a vital component in their overall health. Sciacca reports that many of her patients increased in size following the hurricane, and although it is worrisome, she understands why.

"We've seen significant weight gain," says Sciacca. "It's related to not having a home, eating out, no fridge, and no regular exercise. It's also people being out of jobs, bored, and stress-related eating."

With so much devastation, loss, and limited dietary resources, mental depression can set in. As Tom Farley, department chair for Tulane University's Community Health Sciences Department, points out, depression changes people's eating habits. Little thought is given to nutrition. Grab what is at hand or a short drive away. Depending on the individual, you either gain weight or lose it under these circumstances. For Katrina survivors trying to make good dietary decisions, there continues to be fewer healthy choices.

"Availability of healthy foods in the post-Katrina world has gone down," says Farley. "Grocery stores aren't there for the most part unless you drive to Jefferson Parish. Plus, people may still not have refrigerators, so there aren't any vegetables in the house. If they are stressed, they are more likely to grab whatever is available, which tends to be unhealthy."

Eating better also can save you money. Chips and soda are easier to gobble up, Farley says, but they are also more expensive. Fruits and vegetables are fairly cheap. "You just have to work a little harder for them," he says.

Sciacca cautions people against complicating the process. She recommends keeping "handy" healthy foods around: low-fat microwave meals; yogurt; fresh, canned or dried fruit; frozen vegetables and prepared salads. She realizes that getting back to a normal schedule is far from easy, but says small steps like staying focused, not giving up and being creative will add up.

"Try to eat three meals a day instead of grazing without awareness," Sciacca advises. "Think about what you're eating and how much. Healthy foods have never been more convenient, so it's not an obstacle. Give it some thought before rushing out and ordering the first thing on a fast-food menu."

Exercising is the roundhouse punch of a healthy lifestyle, a one-two combination. Mild to moderate activity not only will increase metabolism, but it also can pump up your self-esteem. When you're dealing with insurance adjustors and contractors, and filling out FEMA applications, confidence is a great ally.

Paul Bruno, owner of Downtown Fitness Center, knows firsthand how much Katrina can weaken the ego. He lost his house and two of his four workout centers. When Bruno reopened his remaining clubs, he sent out letters to clients letting them know the gyms were open. Most of the letters sent to people in Lakeview and other decimated neighborhoods came back marked "address unknown." Nevertheless, Bruno is glad to be back. He and his wife have relocated to the French Quarter, and many of his members who live in his new neighborhood, the CBD and Warehouse District have returned. Bruno feels that incorporating exercise into your daily life will fortify you for the really challenging moments.

"Working out helps you feel good about yourself," says Bruno. "After you get your blood flowing and your heart pumping, it's easier to deal with all of the bureaucracy that most of us are facing."

And don't be intimidated if you're tipping the scales more than you did before the hurricane. Bruno reports that even his most dedicated pre-Katrina clients expanded some during their exercise hiatus. "Everyone seems to be a little thicker," he says

Many fitness clubs and recreation centers are back in business. Sherry Rowley, who manages Curves for Women in Metairie, says that while most of her customers would prefer not to step on a scale, they are exercising regularly. Some are still without homes, and Rowley's facility is much more to them than a sweaty gym.

"People coming in find comfort", she says. "It reminds them of life before Katrina, and they can relate with other women, who are going through what they are. They tell me that if they don't take the time to do something for themselves, they're going to go out of their minds."

Pumping iron and climbing on a treadmill aren't the only ways to achieve stress relief. Slower physical movement, held poses, and paying attention to the body will provide deep relaxation, according to Sean Johnson, owner of Wild Lotus Studio. The Uptown yoga studio offers a variety of classes for beginners and more advanced practitioners. Johnson believes yoga allows people to get in touch with the mind/body connection.

"Yoga in particular is an important practice for people dealing with stress after the hurricane," he says. "It gives them a sense of centeredness, and also a place of refuge. Many people have been trying yoga after Katrina. They felt an urgency to find this kind of serenity."

Johnson wants to dispel the notion that yoga can't be physically demanding. Although his beginner classes focus more on stress relief and relaxation, the advanced classes will get you in shape while still giving you peace of mind. Demand is high, and to meet it, Johnson this month will more than triple the number of classes he has been offering.

No one would mistake Bikram yoga for passive exercise. Classes last more than one and a half hours, and take place in 100-degree heat. Bruno Teyssandier teaches Bikram at the Yoga Room on South Carrollton Avenue, and deems it an excellent weight-loss method. Although some experts consider losing more than 2 pounds per week to be unhealthy, Teyssandier says a friend of his shed 80 pounds in two months by completing two classes per day. In Bikram, as in all exercise programs, it's important to remember your limitations. Teyssandier warns students to listen to their bodies instead of their egos to get the most benefit from the regimen.

"Bikram is fine for all levels, but leave the competition out of it," he says. "If you can't perform the posture, that's all right. Try it tomorrow. Sometimes our egos can get in the way."

If you prefer fresh air to a heated room and you're a mother, Fit Mom may be the best alternative. Moms meet in Audubon Park twice a week, and go through a 60-minute routine that incorporates power walking, toning and stretching, and strength exercises. Kerrie Frey, owner and founder of Fit Mom, says the classes aren't only for new moms or those who are pregnant.

"I have moms whose kids are in high school," she says. "The point is to make exercise accessible to all moms. Exercise can sometimes be put on the back burner. This is like a little club, and some of the moms have become good friends."

Classes in Audubon Park are organizing now, and the program has expanded to the Northshore. If you're stuck at home or unable to make it to the park, Frey offers another option: Mobile Moms. A personal trainer will visit your house.

Farley reminds folks that exercise doesn't have to cost anything. Even though parts of New Orleans aren't very attractive right now with trash piled up, Farley thinks people need to get out and start walking around their neighborhoods.

"One misconception people have is that the only physical activity that matters takes place at the gym or doing some vigorous activity like jogging or cycling," he says. "Walking is a very valuable form of exercise. I don't care if you weigh 300 pounds, you can walk. Walk to the park, to the store or your neighbor's house. If you're physically active in your neighborhood, then you're out there interacting with your neighbors. That's a good way for people to reconnect."

Farley and Tulane University are among the city's partners in "Step Together New Orleans," a public-health initiative supported by public and private entities (for more information visit www.steptogethernola.org). The initiative will include communitywide programs on nutrition, physical activity, asthma education and smoking cessation. The public-service announcements encouraging people to get out and walk, which ran prior to the storm, should resume in January.

Farley believes this is the kind of public project that will help New Orleanians become healthier. Changing neighborhoods, not changing gyms, is ultimately what will make the public more active, he says, and it shouldn't be limited to only physical activity -- people need to press the government for more playgrounds and parks in their neighborhoods.

"We have an incredible opportunity to build green spaces," Farley says. "That kind of environmental change can have a drastic improvement on community health. We've been putting too much responsibility on the individual, and I think we need to place some on the community and government to create a healthy environment."

click to enlarge Parks or other green areas in the neighborhood can provide - a place to get the family moving, even if it's just walking the - dogs.
  • Parks or other green areas in the neighborhood can provide a place to get the family moving, even if it's just walking the dogs.
click to enlarge Katrina evacuees are beginning to return to health clubs to - work off inches they gained after the hurricane.
  • Katrina evacuees are beginning to return to health clubs to work off inches they gained after the hurricane.
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