After Hurricane Katrina, many Coast residents were getting more exercise than in years cleaning out flood and wind damaged houses, and putting yards back in order. And now nearly five months after Katrina, many have found time to pick up their routine at the gym.
A number of Coast physical fitness facilities were destroyed in Katrina. Those that have opened back up are seeing brisk business.
“People are starting to get back into their regular schedule,” says Robin Powell, manager of Vinson Keyhea Fitness Training Center on Pass Road in Gulfport. “We got some storm damage, but not enough to keep closed. We opened up two weeks after the storm hit. I’ve heard people say they missed their workout routine. They are glad to be back because it is something to keep their mind off what has happened. It also it helps them get back into some kind of normalcy.”
Lifestyle Fitness on U.S. 49 in Orange Grove wasn’t as lucky regarding storm damage. Owner Irene Herrington suspects a tornado ripped through the area. She had a total loss, and was closed down for three months. They reopened with a new facility January 1 to huge demand.
“Business is almost four times what it was prior to the storm,” Herrington said. “A number of other gyms in town are not reopening. Also, a lot of out-of-town people have joined temporarily while they are here on the Coast. We are having so many transients coming in and that is boosting our business.
“In Orange Grove, we didn’t lose any homes. I think we are the only city on the Coast that didn’t lose any homes. We had no water and minimal wind damage. We were one of the cities least affected by Katrina, so this is a place a lot of people are moving to because it was not affected by the storm surge.”
Back into a routine
Because overall the area fared well, that meant people could get back to normal — like going to the gym — more quickly.
Herrington, who has been in the fitness business for 24 years, says the types of fitness activities that are most popular haven’t changed much. People work out on machines and with weights for muscle toning to stay in shape and look better. And they do cardiovascular exercises like the treadmill and stationary bicycle to keep the heart healthy.
“There’s nothing trendy about it,” Herrington said. “It is a lifestyle. That is what we try to sell people. We have customers from 12 to 86 years old. We do service quite a few age groups there. We tell people to come even when they don’t want to. Come when you least want to. Do it for three or four weeks, form a habit and don’t stop. If you stop, force yourself to come back.”
In addition to the normal reasons for exercising, Herrington said post-Katrina, it is definitely beneficial that exercise helps prevent depression.
“A lot of people are glad just to come in, circulating, talking,” she said. “It is a mental break to recuperate from all the devastation they are going through.”
“People need that 30 minutes to get away from the disaster,” says Lanette Shorba, who owns Curves for Women in Picayune with her mother and sister. “This is a place where they can go that still looks the same. There is not a tree down in that gym. It is nice and cheery. Everyone is upbeat. I can’t take away the stress from the hurricane, but I can help you accept it a little better.”
Shorba said right after the storm, people were too busy to come into the gym. But after cleaning up their houses, most are back realizing how much they need the workout.
“No matter how they feel, after they get here it helps them,” Shorba said. “A lot of them tell me, ‘I needed this today. I didn’t want to come, but I’m glad I made myself go.’ It just makes it a lot less effort when exercising is part of your routine.”
Helping lose weight is one of the reasons a lot of women turn to exercise. But everyone needs exercise, not just people who are overweight.
“A friend said the other day, ‘Just because I’m thin doesn’t mean I’m healthy,’” she said. “That is a good thing to remember. But if you do have a weight problem, this helps you get back on track. People who gained weight at Christmas came back to exercise, and slipped right back into the routine. It will just take them more days to get to their goal.”
Shorba emphasizes that anyone who can walk in the door can do the workout.
“I had one customer who when she first started coming was using a cane,” Shorba said. “Now she is doing great. Another lady was sent in by her doctor because her sugar level was high. Now her sugar level is normal.”
Curves has “no men and no mirrors,” and socialization is clearly part of what brings women in and keep them coming.
“It doesn’t have to be Curves, but women need to do something like this for themselves three times a week,” Shorba said. “Give yourself an hour and a half that is completely for you. Not homework. No phone. Women, we take care of the world. So we need to take care of ourselves so we can take care of everyone else. Katrina has been really stressful, and people often don’t realize it is the woman at home keeping it all together — even if that home is now a FEMA trailer.”
Stayin’ at the Y
Another fitness center in South Mississippi, the YMCA in Ocean Springs, provided showers and even lodging after Katrina. The YMCA center in Moss Point was wiped out, and the preschool on U.S. 90 in Ocean Springs was damaged. But the YMCA downtown in Ocean Springs was unscathed, and opened up the day after the storm 24 hours per day and free to the community. People without homes were allowed to use the showers and bathrooms. Indiana State Troopers in the area to assist with law enforcement stayed at the YMCA grants building for about a month.
Some YMCA employees who lost their homes stayed at the YMCA, which also served as a distribution point for food, clothing, furniture, cleaning supplies and even chain saws from different YMCAs across the country.
“We opened it up for three months to anyone who wanted to use our facilities, not just the showers, but the exercise facilities and pool,” said Nancy Williams, community relations coordinator for the Ocean Springs YMCA. “Exercise is a good stress reliever, and helps people feel like they have some kind of normal routine again.”
Ocean Springs lost a number of residents who left after their homes were destroyed. There were also a lot of people associated with Keesler Air Force Base transferred out because of heavy damage at Keesler.
“We had a lot of workers and members associated with the military who left and haven’t come back,” Williams said. “We had a lot of people who evacuated or lost homes. Most of those people are back. People said they were so glad to be back to the YMCA. This was their one constant when everything else was in chaos. There are physical benefits of exercising, but especially at the Y you also get the community support benefits. You get to know the other people in the class, and the people who work here. We have an instructor who lost her home and everything. She felt like she still had a home and a home base.”
As for sticking with an exercise program, Williams said finding something you like makes a huge difference. If it isn’t fun and you don’t enjoy it, you won’t stick with it. Her advice is to find something challenging, but not so hard you defeat yourself before you start.
“If you can stick with it two weeks, it becomes a habit,” Williams said. “Anyone can stick with it for two weeks.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.