Salsa and Sweat

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For some, the view from the treadmills at El Gym is breathtaking: A Burger King sits just across East 149th Street. Felix Velazquez just hopes his bay windows, shiny weight machines and thumping merengue are enough to pull local residents away from their Whoppers and fries.

Last October, Velazquez left behind a career in social work to open El Gym in Mott Haven. Most recently director of the Roberto Clemente Center, a mental health clinic on the Lower East Side, he had grown frustrated with the work and with the health care bureaucracy. He says he got tired of watching the revolving door return the same clients with the same problems. So he embarked on a business that he hopes will help his customers change their lifestyles for better long-term mental and physical health.

A native of Puerto Rico, Velazquez chose Mott Haven for its large Hispanic population–and for the area’s extensive environmental and health problems. About 14 percent of South Bronx residents have diabetes and 27 percent are obese (compared to 18 percent citywide), according to a recent study by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which ranked the Bronx as the most overweight borough in the city.

Now, El Gym is one of a handful of exercise facilities in the South Bronx. While he has drawn in only 400 members so far, Velazquez is doing what he can to appeal to local tastes. He doesn’t have a swimming pool or Pilates classes, he says, adjusting his gold-rimmed glasses, “but I do have salsa aerobics. We’ll teach you mambo steps. You’re going to hear the most wicked Puerto Rican and Dominican music and Mexican rock ‘n’ roll.”

He’s also keeping the price down, charging $150 a year, substantially less than some of the Manhattan chains, which charge up to $100 a month.

Still he admits he has his work cut out for him. Physical exercise is not a regular part of many people’s routines in this community, where park space is limited and sports programs sparse. “Most parents are not active, and in the Hispanic culture, a chubby kid is a healthy kid,” says Pamela Darby, director of nutritional services at the Children’s Health Fund, which runs programs at the South Bronx Health Center. She also blames the high obesity rate on typically unaffordable gym fees and the lack of fresh produce at local bodegas.

Velazquez is determined to make his business different from his experience in social work. At his old job, “you got the sense that it’s a revolving door,” he says. “The only thing that changes is their name. This is an act of love, a commitment to a lifestyle.”