Arizona running club boosts Native Americans’ health

By Vandana Sebastian
Phoenix, Arizona (AP) August 2012

An organization that provides services for Native Americans is inspiring a small but stalwart group to run for their lives.

Diana Yazzie-Devine, president of Native American Connections, knew that many Native Americans struggle with obesity. So, she decided to form Native Fit, a running group for Native Americans. The group meets at 5:30 Saturday mornings at Tempe Marketplace for a one-hour run. During the rest of the week, the group splits into smaller pockets based on proximity to runners’ homes.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Indian adults are twice as likely as White adults to be diagnosed with heart disease. American Indian women are 40 percent more likely than White women to be obese. And American Indian adults are twice as likely as White adults to be diagnosed with diabetes.

“We won’t be able to change the statistics immediately. But we’re trying to spread awareness and influence personal choice. And somewhere down the line, things will change,” said Yazzie-Devine, who is also the group’s trainer and a veteran runner. In 2010, Yazzie-Devine completed Ironman Arizona, a grueling cross-country race that comprises 2 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26 miles of running.

Among the runners in Native Fit is Loretta Salazar, who was addicted to meth for 23 years. Now 40 years old, she joined Native American Connections’ treatment program in Phoenix and got help physically and mentally.

She joined Native Fit as a way to lose weight, and she liked it so much she signed up for a half-marathon.

Like Salazar, most of the people in the group had never run before. Sheryl Caponera, director of grants and administration for Native American Connections, lost 65 pounds after joining Native Fit.

“I’ve struggled with weight my whole life. I’m addicted to food,” Caponera said. “I walk. But I complete the distance.”

She admits the weight loss was not a result of just walking.

“Getting physically active demanded a change in lifestyle. In order to be able to build the stamina and endurance needed to complete the walks, I started doing yoga and joined a gym,” Caponera said.

Five months after training with the group, Caponera was able to stop taking her heart medication.

Jordanna Burkett Crist, who works as a counselor at Native American Connections, had developed achalasia, a disorder that affects the ability to swallow food, after her pregnancy.

“After I joined Native Fit, I find that I can swallow fresh fruits and vegetables, which I couldn’t before. I also sleep better,” Crist said.

Crist, 32, was a runner in her teens and early 20s. She said that she came from a family of alcoholics and that running was her retreat from the violence at home. She stopped running when she was 25, for no particular reason. She started again in August last year. Crist says that waking up in the morning for a run is still one of the hardest parts for her.

“It’s easy to roll over and go back to sleep,” Crist said. “What gets me out of bed is the positive social pressure of being part of the group. And also my grandmother, one of the few of my family members who was clean, used to say, `If you run in the morning, you’re first for a blessing.’ “

For most people in Native Fit, who were non-runners before, transitioning wasn’t easy.

“Did I mention that I lost six toenails?” asked Sandra Blosch, 51, a runner with the group.

Yazzie-Devine, the group’s leader, said many in the group suffered from overuse injuries at the start, and often, they did not have good running shoes.

Being in the group required more than different shoes. A change in mind-set was needed, as well.

“I always associated people who exercised and kept fit as people with different aspirations in life. When I would see people biking and jogging in the morning, I associated them with being higher-class people. I thought exercise was only for the rich,” Salazar said. “A few months ago, the realization struck me. I thought, `Oh, my God, I’m a runner!’ I was just like them.”

Yazzie-Devine said, “Native Americans have a history of health diseases because of the rapid rate at which they had to adjust to modern lifestyles. It’s a group that especially needs to get fitness conscious, and we hope to be an inspiration.”

“Now, our group isn’t limited to Native Americans,” Yazzie-Devine added. “Just last month, we picked up a tall, White gentleman, and now he runs with us.”