Gwen Ro has never had a weight problem or weight-related health issue. Although she admits to being a bit of a tomboy as a child, she wasn’t particularly athletic; however, she always believed in the importance of physical fitness in maintaining one’s health. Her favorite quote is from the 19th-century English statesman Edward Stanley: “Those who think they have no time for … exercise will … have to find time for illness.” That saying seems even more relevant today since health statistics have become increasingly alarming. According to the Get Fit America Foundation, obesity is the No. 2 cause of preventable death; 60 million Americans 20 years and older are obese; and obesity increases the risk of developing many other diseases including breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which overwhelmingly and disproportionately affect African Americans.
For Ro, those statistics were more than just numbers: They represented the challenges of people she saw and knew in her community in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Medgar Evers College who worked as a front desk receptionist at Bally Total Fitness, she was often asked to work as a personal trainer. After working in gyms around the city for several years, in 2009 Ro asked her alma mater to support a free fitness program for people in the community. She hoped to target those who didn’t exercise and used excuses, such as not having a place to work out or not being able to afford a gym membership. “If I could give people one less excuse, maybe they would pay more attention to their health,” she offers. “You don’t have to worry about the space or the fee. You can also bring your kids and they can exercise with you or hang out in the bleachers.” A year later, because of consistent positive feedback, Medgar Evers made Ro’s Bootcamp Aerobics an official part of the school’s athletic program.
More than 4,800 people have participated in Bootcamp Aerobics since its inception, with an average of 60 to 70 people in each class. “I tell people that the only pushup they won’t be able to do is the one they never do,” says Ro. “With anything in life, practice is important. You can do it. Just put your mind to it.”