Four years ago, Viridiana Cardenas was not happy with herself. The Merced resident was overweight, her self-esteem was low and she was constantly tired.
“I didn’t like the way I looked or the way I felt,” she said. “I think I was depressed.”
When Farmdale Elementary in Merced opened its doors after school hours for the dance fitness classes known as Zumba three years ago, she decided she’d give it a shot. She stuck with it, and began to see a transformation, both externally and internally.
Since then, she has lost 30 pounds, and most importantly, she carries herself with a lot more confidence, she said.
Cardenas liked the results she saw from her participation in Zumba so much that she decided to share her experience and motivate others to become physically active. In May, she received her instructor license and now leads the newly launched Zumba classes at Crookham Elementary in Winton.
The school opened its grounds after school hours this week for the first time, giving families a safe and organized space to exercise. The community fitness program is the result of a partnership between the Merced County Department of Public Health, Winton School District, Dignity Health and Cultiva La Salud, a regional health initiative whose name means Cultivating Health and formerly was known as the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program.
Claudia Corchado, the Merced County program manager for Cultiva La Salud, said these efforts are especially important in rural and underserved communities such as Winton, where parks and other recreational spaces are limited.
Investments in areas for physical activity, she said, can prove to be beneficial in Merced County, where about 40 percent of children are overweight and three out of four adults in the county are obese.
Cultiva La Salud and partners have been working with school districts in the county on “joint use” of facilities for several years. A grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is helping fund the current efforts at Crookham Elementary.
The classes at Crookham will take place every Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Instruction is free and a volunteer is on hand to care for children in a nearby room.
The first class on Thursday drew more than 80 people, mostly women from a wide range of ages, packing the cafeteria space provided.
Jose Muniz, a Winton resident, was among the few men participating. He said the classes are convenient for him – instruction takes place after work hours and his children are being taken care of in a safe environment. Zumba, he said, also helps alleviate stress after a long workday.
Veronica Rodriguez, also a Winton resident, said the school is only a five-minute walk from her house, which beats having to drive to Atwater for access to the nearest gym.
Rodriguez decided to attend the Zumba classes at Crookham as part of a lifestyle change.
“My mom has diabetes and I’m scared of getting it, too,” she said. “I cut off soda, junk food and I’m trying to exercise regularly.”
Exercising as part of a group also provides a sense of comfort and unity, said Rodriguez, who doesn’t like working out by herself and has trouble getting others to join her. “But there’s a lot of us here, and I’m already making some new friends,” she said.
Engaging people in physical activity through Zumba in Winton makes sense. Zumba, which often is set to lively Latin rhythms, is particularly popular among the area’s large Latino population, Corchado explained.
Amalia Madrigal, a supervising health educator at the county Department of Public Health, said prior to the launch of the program, Winton residents were asked about the types of health programs they wanted to see in their community. Most were concerned about the lack of spaces to exercise.
Public parks are not always the preferred option for residents, especially in evening hours due to safety concerns.
The response exceeded their expectations, Madrigal said, apparent by the crowded cafeteria Thursday. Organizers are thinking about moving the classes outdoors, once temperatures cool down and air quality sullied by recent wildfires improves.
Corchado and Madrigal said they hope to replicate the program at more schools around the county.