James Cross is determined. On a recent Friday morning, the 70-year-old squats with a barbell on his shoulders and goes into a deep stretch. His shoulders are tight; a memento from years of work on an assembly line.
Cross is at Break the Mold CrossFit in Hallmark, a neighborhood in West Louisville, where he takes CrossFit classes. These workouts are known for their high intensity, and originally owner Nicole Harp hoped to attract neighborhood teenagers looking to work out after school. She’s done that, and last month she also added a class for people 50-years-old and up.
And that’s how Cross found the class — he was attracted by the possibility of weight lifting like the Olympians he loves to watch on television, and also by how close Break the Mold is to his home.
“Since it was in my neighborhood, I said, ‘Well I can come over here. It’s just right around the corner,’” Cross said.
And in an area of town with low life expectancy, where health issues like obesity and diabetes are prevalent, where many older residents are dealing with the physical repercussions of years of labor, and some may not feel safe going for a jog, Break the Mold is helping fill something of an exercise desert.
An Exercise Desert
Break the Mold isn’t the only place near Hallmark to exercise — there’s the downtown branch of the YMCA, classes at the Flaget Senior Center, St. Peter’s Church of Christ near Portland and the California Community Center. But compared to Louisville’s more affluent neighborhoods, there are fewer exercise opportunities here.
“We talk about trying to make the healthy choice the easy choice. And in low-income neighborhoods, the healthy choice is often the hardest thing to do,” said Steven Wallace, a professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “And in an affluent neighborhood, the healthy choice is often easy.”
It’s another reason Break the Mold CrossFit in Hallmark is out of the ordinary: Harp has neighborhood health in mind.
“Taking the TARC an hour-and-a-half to get to your job, and there are really no sidewalks that are safe, that will automatically create a propensity for diabetes and obesity,” Harp said. “There’s no health food restaurants out here. It’s nutrition, how you can get around, all of that.”
All of those factors add up. Where James Cross lives in Shawnee, a person can expect to live to around 73-years-old. Across town in St. Matthews, residents typically live until at least 83-years-old.
This gaping difference is dictated by the types of jobs people have, the types of food they eat and if they’re able to exercise, along with other factors. Cross said his motivation to exercise and be healthy isn’t shared by all the other 70-year-olds he knows. But for a lot of people, it’s about access.
“In my community there are old people and they don’t have transportation,” Cross said. “I know getting older people active would be helpful. You don’t know what your body can do, if you quit using it.”
A Legacy Of Low-Wage Work
Cross spent most of his working life — nearly 40 years — on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Louisville. In the beginning, he sweated constantly because of the physical work, climbing on top of trucks to screw huge bolts in. Then there was the repetitive squatting that brought tears to his eyes.
“I had to start these nuts, they were real small. And I had to start them underneath the truck, but I couldn’t see it [where they went],” Cross said. “I told the boss,’ I can’t reach under here,’ and he said, ‘if you can’t do the job, why don’t you quit.’ I learned how to start them nuts on the tip of two fingers, right on the tips.”
He eventually developed back problems and a pinched nerve in his forearms because of those tiny screws, and wears leg braces. And Cross’ work-related health problems are indicative of a larger societal issue that reflects back onto his community. That’s according to Tyson Brown, a health researcher and sociology professor at Duke University.
“Blacks are more likely to work in service occupations and jobs that require high degree of physical demands, and over time this can lead to health problems,” Brown said.
And while the body can bounce back relatively quickly after injury and wear when people are younger, the repeated injury and lack of access to healthy choices catches up when people are older. This manifests itself in those life expectancy discrepancies, as well as higher chances of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health issues.
“We don’t really see these [factors], they’re kind of invisible,” Brown said.
Steven Wallace with UCLA said people in their 50s and 60s in lower-wage occupations are also much more likely to end up with a disability than people with higher incomes.
“If you’re lifting heavy items and you throw your back out, you’re probably not able to go back to work, and if you’re at a desk job, you’re probably able to go to physical therapy and go back to work,” Wallace said.
But Cross said even with his leg braces, he’s still able to work out. For the older people working out at Break the Mold, exercises are modified. And even with the lower intensity, Cross’ “before” and “after” pictures are striking. He’s lost eight pounds in six weeks and gets compliments around his neighborhood. And his success might inspire others to give exercise a try, too.