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How Atlantic City is working toward getting healthy

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ATLANTIC CITY — Music blared from an old-school boom box inside the fitness room at the Uptown Complex on a recent Thursday evening.

Marline Keyes, 47, wrapped a faded green resistance band around a rack of weights, bent her knees and slowly pulled the handles toward her waist. Beads of sweat trickled down her face.

“I’ve been working out here for about three years,” said Keyes, a 1989 Atlantic City High School graduate who was a professional boxer 20 years ago. “I have a few disabilities from my boxing career and a car accident. This is my way of staying in shape.”

Keyes is among a growing number of residents who have taken advantage of free recreational programs as a way of staying healthy. Being healthy involves a number of factors, including staying active, exercising and eating the right foods. And that can be a challenge in this city where four in 10 residents live in poverty. Community workout facilities and eating programs can help bridge that gap.

The city received a B-minus on a 2018 ranking of New Jersey’s Healthiest Places by Niche.com, which graded more than 750 of the state’s communities. Niche, a company that does online rankings and reviews, took into account factors such as physical inactivity, obesity and access to doctors and recreation and fitness facilities in determining its grades. Only eight communities out of 750 received a lower grade.

According to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, 40.6 percent of year-round Atlantic City residents were living in poverty as of July 1, 2017, above the national average of 12.3 percent.

“We understand that when you’re on a limited budget, fruits and vegetables may not necessarily be a priority,” said Laura Englemann, community health and wellness manager for AtlantiCare. “We’re trying to help as much as possible.”

AtlantiCare opened its Pantry at the Plex in December 2016 at the William L. Gormley HealthPlex on Atlantic Avenue. Last summer, AtlantiCare served 2,412 meals while also offering yoga, painting and health education classes.

In 2017, the pantry provided more than 70,000 pounds of nutritious food. More than 600 people visited there in 2018, potentially helping 1,785 adults and 506 children, according to the organization.

“Wellness is embedded in everything we do, whether it’s diet, exercise or even mental health issues,” said Sandy Festa, executive director of AtlantiCare Health Services and Federally Qualified Health Center. “There are a lot of great things happening in Atlantic City, and we want to make sure the people who live and work in Atlantic City are healthy enough to enjoy them.”

In 2017, AtlantiCare partnered with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey and other community partners to establish free, fresh produce “pop-up” markets at the HealthPlex on select Thursdays. There were more than 6,800 patient and community member visits to the markets in 2018, potentially benefiting 12,175 adults and 6,638 children, according to the company.

The city also has a variety of workout venues.

Swimming was the recreational activity of choice during a recent Monday evening at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Complex.

About 30 kids ages 4-12 gathered at the indoor pool as members of the Whelan’s Whales swimming program.

“We had 311 kids in the summer and have 108 enrolled now,” said Sari Carroll, who established the program with her mother, Brigantine Aquatic Center Director Robin Taylor.

Starting next month, they will have a class for 20 adults who want to learn to swim and improve their fitness.

“I need to learn how to swim, and I have to lose weight,” said Jarmar Parker, 36. “I’m hoping to turn pro (as a boxer) soon. I want to fight at light-heavyweight (175 pounds), and I’m currently around 220. I’m hoping swimming will help me take off those extra pounds.”

The city features two state-of-the-art fitness centers — LifeCenter Fitness Center and Matrxx Fitness — at Tropicana Atlantic City and Showboat Atlantic City, respectively. LifeCenter has the advantage of being associated with AtlantiCare. Some people go there to lose weight, some are there to rehab after undergoing hip or knee replacements, others are there to get in shape.

According to Matrxx General Manager Wendy McDaniel, the facility, which is open 24 hours, has about 1,300 members, including 500 who live in the city.

Elsewhere, the Atlantic City Police Athletic League on New York Avenue is known primarily for its boxing program and its basketball leagues, but it also has a gym on the third floor that includes treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes and Nautilus equipment. Residents can join for $75 a year.

And tentative plans are in the works for an adult Walking Club to be held at the Uptown Complex’s outdoor track.

The Mayor’s Office declined to allow Recreation Department officials to be interviewed for this story.

But there is more that needs to be done. In a report on Atlantic City’s path forward, Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy, wrote that the city faces “severe public health challenges” that require a concerted effort.

“The state, the county and key stakeholders must combine forces to understand the depth of the problems, identify solutions and implement programs that will address the issues,” the report stated.

Contact: 609-272-7201 DWeinberg@pressofac.com Twitter @PressACWeinberg

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