A. Garcia / SFVS

Yolanda and Romualdo Avila are two of the regular participants of the exercise program directed at seniors in the City of San Fernando.

Four years ago, Maria Godinez could barely walk.

Her knees hurt and she had circulation problems. Getting up from bed and going to a nearby store was a nightmare.

She went to her doctor, who told her she would have to start using a cane, then a walker and eventually a wheelchair.

The prognosis floored her.

“I thought ‘how can I accept this for my life?’,” the 68-year-old remembered. “I said, I have to do something.”

What she did was join an exercise program for seniors at San Fernando Recreation Park. At first, she admits she would limp profusely and couldn’t do most of the movements in the exercise routines.

“I had to put warm water (in the bathtub) to relax my muscles after the exercise,” Godinez said.

But she kept at it and look at her today — walking freely, raising her legs up and down as she keeps pace with the rhythm of the music pumping inside the Recreation Park gym on a blustery Monday morning.

Godinez is a different person. “I feel good,” she said.

The pain in her knees is gone. Her circulation problems are a thing of the past as well. Her cholesterol and high blood pressure are in check, and her triglyceride level (which can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes) has gone down from 6.89 to 6.3. She has no diabetes.

Just as important Godinez says is the emotional wellbeing  she has aside from the physical improvement the exercise program has given her.

“This gives me energy,” she said after finishing the 1-hour exercise regime, her brow glistening from the sweat. “I don’t feel depressed. I feel motivated.”

Exercises for the Masses

Godinez is an example of what the program 3 WINS Fitness program strives to do for seniors in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

In 2011, California State University Northridge professor Steven Loy took on the task of creating a free program to support the community with health training and nutrition education in their Healthy You diabetes prevention program.

Originally called 100 Citizens — and first offered in the City of San Fernando — 3 WINS Fitness goes to local underserved communities and offers free exercise and health training. The program is run almost entirely by CSUN kinesiology students and volunteers.

“Almost 80 percent of Americans are not sufficiently active,” Loy said. “Many people do not know where to begin or how to start exercising. We try to eliminate that problem and create a sustainable system by tailoring a workout regimen for their body capability.”

Loy’s dream for 3 WINS Fitness was to make it sustainable, replicable and scalable. Personal fitness instructors can be prohibitively expensive for individuals. Loy solved this by making it possible for students to gain valuable intern and volunteer experience by becoming instructors.

This allowed the program to be run entirely by students, while also maintaining its own financial independence.

“We are saving the participant a tremendous amount of healthcare dollars,” Loy said. “Unhealthy lifestyles can cost a tremendous amount in medical bills. What we are trying to do is help people steer clear from these costs and improve their quality of life by providing a free exercise and health education program.”

In 2012, then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign challenged faith-based and community organizations to participate in an international competition by sharing a video and opening up their program to the world. 3 WINS Fitness won the popular vote in the video competition, and Loy was invited with his students to visit the White House in 2013.

There are several program levels, but the basic one — which has the majority of participants — is geared toward seniors.

Currently, 3 WINS Fitness operates in six sites in the San Fernando Valley. The oldest site is San Fernando Recreation Park, where the free classes are offered three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday, starting at 8:15 a.m.

The exercise classes are often held outside, except when it’s raining, too cold or, as it was on Monday Oct. 15, when strong winds swept through the San Fernando Valley.

So on this day, the instructors and more than 42 students headed inside, where after a short warm up walking around the gym, they began the routine, separated into three sections focused on improving balance, flexibility and strength training/endurance, noted Valen Sinisgalli, Director of Champions for Life (the name of the program in the City of San Fernando).

The other goal of the program is for participants to lose an average of 5-7 pounds.

Their youngest participants are about 50-years-old; the oldest 91.

They all show up eager to exercise.

Learning to Fall and Get Up

Sinisgalli said one of the things they try to emphasize every time is “how to get off the ground if you fall in your home.”

That’s why one of the three sections is exercises on mats on the floor. Through the regimen, seniors learn how to get up if they happen to suffer an accident and fall.

“For some people, that’s a matter of life and death,” Sinisgalli said. “We teach them so, if it happens at home, they’ll know what to do. Even if it hurts, you can fight through the pain.”

Elia Martinez, 64, had been coming on and off for the past three years. But now she’s a regular since her retirement.

“I’ve maintained my weight,” she says of how the program has helped her.

More than that, she adds, “before I was pre-diabetic, now I’m fine.”

The group camaraderie is obvious. Most people know each other and, throughout the exercise routines, they joke and smile with each other. Friendships are created and sustained.

There are also couples, like Yolanda and Romualdo Avila, who participate in the program.

She’s 66 and he’s 69 and both praise the program for keeping them healthy and active.

“Before I would get up and I couldn’t lift my arms and my knees hurt,” Yolanda said. “But ever since I’ve been with the program, I don’t have that problem anymore.”

Romualdo said he’s lost weight, going from 232 to 219 pounds; his goal is to reach 200.

He said he often tells other seniors to join the program.

“This is a valuable time for our health. It’s dumb not to take part in this group, which is completely free,” Romualdo said.

Free classes in the San Fernando Valley are available at the David M. Gonzalez Recreation Center in Pacoima; El Cariso Community Regional Park in Sylmar; Lanark Recreation Center in Canoga Park; the Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in North Hills; and the San Fernando Recreation Center in San Fernando. For more information or to find a class location near you, visit www.3winsfitness.com.)