The music of hip hop duo OutKast blared in the dim lighting of The Howard School gymnasium on a Monday evening in April. More than 100 Chattanoogans grooved as the electrical outlets powered DJ Keenan Daniels' booming sound system.
"One, two, hands up, let's go!" fitness trainer Tobe Taylor shouted as the microphone faded and power surged. The crowd jogged in unison to the beat.
But they were there to do more than jumping jacks, air punches and high kicks. The group is on a mission to build healthier communities, particularly in the under-resourced areas of Chattanooga that face significant health challenges. And the movement is growing.
Daniels — known by his stage name, The MillionDollaMan — began the New Year with a vision: to join forces with a personal trainer, combine his music skills with their coaching, and empower people to take charge of their health.
"Recently I've had some family members deal with some health issues, and for some reason in the African American community, fitness is kind of on the back burner," Daniels said. "I knew that dancing was something that everyone wants to feel like they can do, especially women."
Once finding that Taylor's hip-hop, dance-inspired workout class suited large groups and a variety of people, Daniels wanted to "take it to another level."
He partnered with Cempa Community Care and Hospice of Chattanooga to sponsor free workout jam sessions in which participants follow Taylor, who owns T2 Fitness off Highway 58, through his full-body workout, then leave with a healthy, wholesome meal.
The first two "Neighborhood Workout Jam Sessions" took place at Brainerd High School in March and The Howard School in April. Each event had about 100 participants, which LaDarius Price, community outreach manager for Cempa and the event's organizer, said far exceeded his expectations.
"So much so, that we were constantly getting messages, emails wanting to know when the next session was going to come about," Price said.
The group will host the third session on Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Miller Park in downtown Chattanooga, and Price expects the event to blow the others out of the water.
Sessions emphasize the fun aspects of exercise, and movements can be modified for those with physical limitations, Taylor said.
"You only get one shot in this body — come out and enjoy yourself," he said.
Daniels said he hopes the workouts will help people kick-start their weeks, stay accountable, motivated and maybe encourage them to find a trainer or gym.
"It originally started in the African American community — that was my target — but it's become universal," Daniels said. "I didn't see this coming. I just wanted to help people, and look where we are."
Cempa’s Neighborhood Workout Jam Session
Monday, May 13
6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
910 Market St. Chattanooga
Contact LaDarius Price at email@example.com for more information and to RSVP.
SHARING A VISION
Daniels believes in the power of music to inspire and bring people together.
But by starting what he calls his "passion project," Daniels tapped into a broader effort by public health leaders locally and across the country to address health disparities — differences in health status caused by social, political, economic and environmental factors out of one's control.
Darrell Gaskin, health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Disparities Solutions, said at a conference last week that everyone dies of the same diseases: heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes.
"It's just certain groups are more likely to get them and die," Gaskin said. "We're not applying the things that we know about how to treat and prevent these diseases equally."
In Hamilton County, black people are 2.5 times more likely to die from diabetes, 35% more likely to die from stroke and 30% more likely to die from heart disease than white people, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department's 2019 "Picture of Our Health Report."
Physical inactivity and obesity are two key risk factors for these chronic diseases, which can be harder to prevent in areas with higher poverty rates and limited access to grocery stores and fresh food.
When Price started working at Cempa, a nonprofit focused on infectious disease prevention, he saw his role as educating the African American community about HIV and STIs. However, he soon realized improving population health and lowering disease rates — both infectious and chronic — involved much more.
"It's about the entire person. That's why we do things like a neighborhood workout jam session," he said. "You're touching every aspect of a person's life. Exercise, eating right and education are key components."
In January, Price also helped start a Faith-based Health and Wellness Council that is working to reduce health disparities.
While the workout sessions may appeal to those without access to a gym or coach, Taylor said it's also important to address obesity and chronic disease more broadly.
"Tennessee is one of the leading states in childhood obesity," he said. "As a whole, in the state of Tennessee and Chattanooga, we really need to step up and not talk about it, but be about it."
Daniels thinks unhealthy recipes that are passed from generation to generation are also to blame.
"I'm the one that's going to be like, instead of fried chicken how 'bout some baked chicken?" he said.
While there are challenges to living a healthy lifestyle, Daniels said he hopes the jam sessions show people they can exercise and eat better regardless of where they live.
The group hopes to continue and expand the sessions to other areas going forward, such as Hixson or Ooltewah, but will need continued funding support.
"I would like for it to hopefully pick up so much momentum that people want to take it all over Chattanooga," Daniels said. "If this event helps one person really stay on track, then mission accomplished."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.