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Third Avenue Grows as a Fitness Oasis, Surrounded by Fast Food

By Patrick Wall | March 1, 2012 9:19am
Sandra Caballero, 28, said she struggles to avoid all the tasty, cheap fast food offered around the Planet Fitness on Third Avenue.
Sandra Caballero, 28, said she struggles to avoid all the tasty, cheap fast food offered around the Planet Fitness on Third Avenue.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

MELROSE — Inside the bright gym lobby, Sandra Caballero felt great.

She had just spent her Monday evening shedding calories on a treadmill inside the new Planet Fitness gym on Third Avenue and 151st Street.

Caballero knew, however, that as soon as she passed through the gym's glass doors, the will power she had just flexed would buckle — falling victim to a greasy box of fries at a McDonald's right down the block.

"You [are] hungry right after the gym," said Caballero, 28, nodding toward the fast food joint from inside the lobby of the gym.

"It's right there," she moaned. "It's a struggle."

The Hub, the bustling commercial corridor that begins where 149th Street, Third Avenue and Melrose Avenue converge, has become a mini-fitness district. In addition to Planet Fitness, two other gyms operate in the neighborhood and a third is set to open in April.

The McDonald's restaurant on Third Avenue near 149th Street is open 24-hours-a-day, tempting many fitness buffs after a late-night workout.
The McDonald's restaurant on Third Avenue near 149th Street is open 24-hours-a-day, tempting many fitness buffs after a late-night workout.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

Still, despite all the workout options, the area remains saturated with fast-food restaurants and hot dog carts, reminding would-be health buffs that it can require an extra effort to stay fit in the South Bronx.

"It’s a really big challenge, because there’s so many things that make me want to slack and eat bad things," said Steven Padin, 17, after a Planet Fitness workout.

To resist the urge to indulge, Padin brings a home-mixed protein shake to the gym. He also stores a home-cooked meal, such as brown rice and grilled chicken, inside a Tupperware container in his locker.

The Planet Fitness opened in December and, within weeks, up to 1,800 visitors, most from the surrounding neighborhood, filled the gym each day, said manager Ricardo Cordero Jr. The gym’s monthly membership fee is $10.

Across the street from the two-story Planet Fitness sits a Lucille Roberts women’s gym. A few blocks north, a new Blink Fitness center will soon open on St. Ann’s Avenue. And several streets south, the venerable John’s Boxing Gym has rumbled for some 30 years on Westchester Avenue, though it will soon move one block down, to 149th Street.

But surrounding these gyms is a cornucopia of fattening foods.

Hub visitors can chow on cheap burgers at the 24-hour, two-story McDonald’s near Third Avenue and 149th Street, or at the nearby Checkers, Burger King or White Castle restaurants. They can buy inexpensive pizza slices at about a half-dozen local shops, or pick up a sizzling hot dog, sausage or kebab at one of several street carts.

"Let’s face it," said Vinnie Valentino, director of the local business improvement district. "All you have on Third Avenue is fast-food restaurants."

To be sure, a smattering of other local restaurants — Mexican, Chinese, Dominican, Jamaican — offer some healthier fare. And several bodegas and street vendors sell fruit and vegetables of varying quality.

But even the health-conscious are quick to point out that none of those options rivals the fast-food joints for affordability or convenience.

"Sometimes I just have to buy something real quick," said Bucacar Saidy, a lean 26-year-old who recently entered Planet Fitness clutching a McDonald’s bag stuffed with a double cheeseburger and fries.

Another Planet Fitness patron, Elga Negron, 35, noted that a GNC vitamin shop sells smoothies just steps from the gym, and that a Subway restaurant by the McDonald’s features low-calorie sandwiches. But those few healthier choices are scraps, she said, compared to the feast of nutritional and delectable food available in Manhattan, where she works as a medical secretary.

"People do want to eat healthier — but we need more options in the Bronx," Negron said. "Here you have to really search to get a good salad."

Brunilda Rodriquez, an employee at the GNC, agreed.

Even on a diet of smoothies, McDonald’s salads and rice and beans from a nearby Spanish diner, she said, she had still gained weight during her years at the health store.

"My problem is that I have to eat whatever I can eat around here," said Rodriquez, who has worked at the shop since 2002."

The Bronx, and in particular the South Bronx, has often been described as a health-food "desert." A 2008 study by the Department of City Planning reported that nine out of 12 community districts in the Bronx fell short of the city’s average ratio of produce-selling supermarkets to residents.

Partly as a result, Bronx residents eat fewer fruits and vegetables but drink more sugary beverages per day than New Yorkers in any other borough, according an annual community survey administered by the Health Department.

The percentage of Bronx residents who are overweight or obese — about 70 percent — surpasses the city average by more than 10 percent, the department has found.

"The South Bronx has been hardest hit by the obesity epidemic," said Cathy Nonas, director of the department’s physical activity and nutrition program.

In response, the city has launched several initiatives in recent years to bring healthy foods to underserved areas, such as the South Bronx.

The city has helped more than 200 fruit and vegetable stands set up shop in the Bronx, and has encouraged 70 South Bronx bodegas to sell healthier foods, such as whole wheat bread and low-fat milk, Nonas said.

The Health Department notes that, while the Bronx still leads the city in unhealthy indicators, people there eat slightly more fruits and vegetables and drink fewer sodas per day than they did in previous years.

Still sweating from his exercise routine at Planet Fitness, Kayon Jackson, 18, said it may take more work to live healthily in the South Bronx, but it’s possible.

"Of course it's a challenge — there’s fast food everywhere," said Jackson, who arms himself with homemade salads and wraps before heading outside. "But if you’re really determined, you can do it."