SIA ULO, 43, STEPPED off the scale, and sat down to let Ivan Robinson take her blood pressure and give her a mini-lecture about better hydration. “Drink a glass of water for every daylight hour,” advised the nurse practitioner. Then he sent Ulo off with one last command: “Enjoy turbo kick.”
Most checkups aren’t a warm-up for a kickboxing class, but pairing the two is Robinson’s prescription for improving the city’s well-being. My Healthy DC, the program he founded two years ago, has been gradually rolling out fitness classes at the District’s public recreation centers. There’s yoga, belly dancing, tai chi, water aerobics, boot camp, Zumba and more. And because his practice foots the bill, all of it is free to any resident who wants to sign up. (His motto: “If you put money last and community first, it will work out.”)
The only thing students are expected to pay is attention — both to the instructors and to Robinson, who swings by all of the sites regularly to monitor progress and encourage preventative care. “It’s a bait and switch. You think you’re here to dance, but you leave with orders for a cholesterol and pap screening,” Robinson says. “We want to help you live the life you should be leading.” If that’s not enough enticement, the program sweetens the deal by rewarding students who take four classes a week for a month with a massage or Reiki treatment.
Ulo, who signed up for My Healthy DC just a month ago, already senses the differences in her body. Since diving into three classes a week at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in the Brookland neighborhood, her clothes are starting to seem looser. “I feel like I’m getting stronger. I’ve been telling everybody I know,” she says.
Fellow turbo kicker Marcia Lee, 46, has dropped four dress sizes in the six months she’s headed to My Healthy DC classes. “I was tired of being tired, and this program has saved my life,” she says. “I’m in a totally different place than I was. Instead of me at happy hours, I change my clothes and I go to class.”
Although centers get to choose which classes they’d like to host based on community interest, most of the programming has a non-Western bent. That’s by design, as Robinson started training in kung fu at age 6 and credits that education for getting him to where he is today.
When he was teaching a self-defense class at the Hillcrest Recreation Center in Southeast two weeks ago, Robinson began the session with a vigorous series of breathing exercises and arm circles before getting into any confrontation strategies. Then, he demonstrated how if an attacker grabs your wrist, you can simply circle your arm as though you’re waving to escape the grip — and whip your assailant to the ground. Performing this move solo, he explained, is something they could perfect in tai chi classes. “That’s why I want you to come to those classes, too. Applied, it’s self-defense,” he told the room of women.
The majority of My Healthy DC participants are females, and some classes are even designated as women-only to keep students (especially those of the Muslim faith) comfortable with the fitness environment. But Robinson would like to see more men take advantage of the program, too. “I don’t want to be the only brother left,” he jokes.
Because of Robinson’s work, there will be at least one other guy surviving with him: Jeffrey Banks, 34. Two years ago, he didn’t even know what tai chi was. But after excelling in classes through Robinson’s program, he’s now in training to become an instructor himself. “My range of motion is better, and I have a lot more stamina,” he says of his transformation. The most important change he experienced, however, required losing something other than weight: excuses.
Photo by Kevin Dietsch for Express