Instructor DeShawn Johnson leads a Sit and Be Fit class at Englewood's Salvation Army. Credit: Dynna Edwards

ENGLEWOOD — Englewood’s Salvation Army launched fitness classes during the height of the pandemic — and now it’s becoming a one-stop shop for neighbors’ health needs.

The Salvation Army’s Healthy Urban Lifestyle Program, a fitness program created in 2020 for Englewood residents, blends upbeat exercises for people of all ages with nutritional lessons to get neighbors moving in a healthier direction.

Program leaders launched the fitness classes two years ago to address the preexisting conditions that lowered the life expectancy of Black residents and made them more at risk from COVID-19.

It’s Englewood’s hidden gem in everyone’s backyard, said Dynna Edwards, food pantry coordinator and family program manager at The Salvation Army Adele and Robert Stern Red Shield Center.

And the program helped save Edwards’ life.

“A light deserves to be shined on a resource like this in the community that’s available for your children, grandmother, mom and dad,” Edwards said. “People need to know what we have over here. It’s like keeping secret sauce. You can’t keep a secret sauce.”

Edwards never liked physical fitness. 

Exercise and nutrition weren’t encouraged until Edwards was “well into adulthood,” she said. She tried to balance caring for her diabetes while raising two sons in Englewood. The disease almost took her life on “several occasions,” Edwards said. 

Two years ago, Edwards joined The Salvation Army’s Healthy Urban Lifestyle Program. A coworker had to drag Edwards into the class, she said. 

The result was life-changing for Edwards and her youngest son, who joined the program, Edwards said. When she broke her ankle months later, the program shifted to fit her needs. Instructor DeShawn Johnson created exercises she could do in a chair to move her body again, Edwards said. 

When Edwards’ youngest first joined the Salvation Army’s fitness program at the 945 W. 69th St. center, he liked drinking jugs of juice.

One of his favorite activities was playing basketball on the court with friends, but his movements were sluggish because of his sugary diet, Edwards said. 

The program encouraged participants to swap juice for water, Edwards said. Her son took the advice, inspired by Johnson and other “older gentlemen” in his classes. It wasn’t long until Edwards noticed changes in her son’s life, she said. 

“His skin got better,” Edwards said. “He’s lost about 20 pounds. He’s always playing basketball on the court now, and he’s able to move and breathe better.”

Over the years, Edwards has seen “adults who could barely move their legs or knees improve,” she said. Another older participant, Ms. Janice, is “zipping around” now, Edwards said. 

“To be able to feed into that type of energy and provide that type of resource for a community as a team, that’s huge for us,” Edwards said. 

The lifestyle program adapts to fit participants’ needs, said Johnson, community center director and fitness instructor. 

Instructors work with people to brainstorm health and fitness goals, “and then we help them to achieve it,” Johnson said. 

If neighbors are looking for a chance to “pump up the music and get into it,” they might consider Treadmill Church, a cardio class with a gospel and inspirational soundtrack, Johnson said.

The step aerobics class is modeled after Xtreme Hip Hop with Phil, a high–intensity course that went viral during the pandemic. Johnson slows the class so participants can keep up with the pace, but the music is always “high-energy,” encouraging people to keep going.

Sit and Be Fit classes cater to members with injuries or limited mobility. Older neighbors who have to stay seated can get moving again.

People of all ages can join the classes, Johnson said. If a parent needs to bring their child to a workout session, everyone can participate in the “family-involved type workouts,” Johnson said. 

“We’re looking to create a community around movement and healthy choices,” Johnson said. “We want to change lifestyles.” 

Growing Home, an urban farm and workforce development center, partners with the Chicago Food Depository to host a free food pantry and grocery giveaway Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the center. Neighbors who attend the fitness program can get healthy recipe suggestions and ask questions about nutrition before they visit the pantry, Johnson said. 

The Englewood center also offers referrals for mental health services. Neighbors seeking spiritual lessons can attend church at the center on Sundays. 

“If you’re trying to get your mental, spiritual and physical body back in shape, this is the perfect place to do it,” Edwards said. 

Chicagoans can join the lifestyle program no matter where they are on their health journey, Johnson said.

”You are supported by everyone — from the front desk to the food pantry,” Edwards said. “It’s like a warm hug. You always have people over here.”

It’s not rare to find members staying after class to discuss meals and workouts they want to try at home, Edwards said.

The purpose of the program is to build a community — tackling health was just one way to do it. 

“I would like for people to know that living a healthy lifestyle can be done,” Edwards said. “It’s extremely fun and life-changing. It can extend your life and, generationally, it can help your kids and your family. It’s the same concept as when you’re on the airplane and you try to take that mask and save your children. You have to save yourself first.” 

Monthly membership for the Healthy Urban Lifestyle Program is $17.50. Older people can join for $12.50.

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis