Mary-Anne Saffon-King was involved in a car accident in 2013. The crash left her in a coma for two days and then, when she awoke, seriously limited her mobility on the right side of her body. Three years later she is exercising, dancing and smiling at the San Fernando Recreation Park three mornings a week – without any physical sign of the injuries from her accident.
Saffon-King is one of the more than 250 participants of 3 Wins Fitness, which started as the 100 Citizens program in 2011, born from California State University, Northridge’s Department of Kinesiology — one of the nation’s largest kinesiology programs. The exercise program aimed to improve public health and fitness by offering free workout sessions to the local community at San Fernando Recreation Park. The initiative took off, soon expanding to three other parks throughout the San Fernando Valley and two additional parks in South Los Angeles.
Five years later, 3 Wins Fitness has expanded to CSUN’s sister CSU campuses in San Francisco, Stanislaus and Los Angeles, all of which have replicated the program. In 2013, the White House recognized the program through First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.
The initiative’s recent name change to 3 Wins Fitness represents its three main beneficiaries, organizers said: students, the community and participants:
Win No. 1: Practical Experience for Students
3 Wins Fitness organizers aim to expand it statewide, to all 22 other CSU campuses across California, hoping to implement the program at 20 of the campuses by December, said Steven Loy, exercise physiologist and faculty advisor for 3 Wins Fitness. CSUN graduate students in kinesiology are spearheading the creation of sustainable infrastructure for the program at each campus.
Graduate students Jazmyn Jasso is the program director at Martin Luther King Park in South LA. In 2013, she became involved in 3 Wins Fitness during her junior year and was working toward a career in physical therapy — until she discovered the impact she could make on entire communities.
“Physical therapy is a little bit more intimate,” Jasso said. “In a community, I feel like you get to touch more lives — being out there, listening to stories, seeing struggles. The neighborhoods where people live really tell you about the struggles that they go through, and how resources are not really offered to reach those communities [that are] the most in need.”
Program coordinator and CSUN graduate student Esteban Campa oversees 3 Wins Fitness operations at all six parks in the LA area. He said his favorite part of the program is sharing his experiences with and mentoring younger CSUN students.
“I truly enjoy this program because I can help mentor and lead other students into a direction that can be beneficial professionally and personally,” he said.
Campa is one of the six graduate students expanding the program to other CSU campuses.
“It’s going to be very challenging,” said Campa, who is working with CSU Bakersfield and Chico State. “The program and its basic structure is easy and easy to run, but identifying the [students for] leadership positions is challenging because they are the ones who will make it live for coming semesters and years.”
Campa and Jasso, who is working with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and CSU San Bernardino, are collaborating with LACI@CSUN to develop a business plan for the statewide expansion.
Win No. 2: Affordability and Accessibility to Improve Community Health
According to the World Health Organization, inactivity is the fourth-leading cause of death and leads to health issues such as diabetes, coronary artery disease and obesity. Even though most people are aware of the benefits of regular workouts, many don’t have the resources or the money to be more active, said Loy.
“[People are being] told, ‘You need to exercise and you need to eat better, but there are no free programs for you. You’re going to have to pay for it,’” Loy said. “We can do it at no cost and bring in the parks, which are underutilized in terms of structured exercise — [and] change the culture of the community, as people see this is a park where it’s safe to exercise because there are other people exercising.”
The CSUN students function as volunteers for the parks and are responsible for leading the programs, Loy explained. 3 Wins Fitness is in its sixth year of operation with no external funding, he said.
“It’s a student-empowered effort. All the growth that we have established is student driven,” Loy said. “They wanted to expand to more parks, and I said, ‘We need infrastructure’ — so they established the infrastructure. The students understand the value of delivering while they are in school, and want to be valuable while they are here.”
CSUN alumnus Ismael Aguila ’99 (Exercise Science), ’05 (Exercise Physiology) works as the director of recreation and community services at San Fernando Recreation Park.
“The options were very limited for people in this area to exercise,” said Aguila, who has supported 3 Wins Fitness since its inception. The only gyms in the area were pricey to join, he said.
Before 3 Wins Fitness, the park’s staff tried to offer low-cost fitness classes to community members — without success. The free and outdoor sessions now offered by CSUN students, who also assisted participants on a more personal level, immediately drew attention.
“Students can focus on beginners and correct their postures. The one-on-one really makes it special in a qualitative way,” Aguila said. “You see the passion of these students. They are not doing it for money. They really like what they are doing and learning, and get excited about the impact they are making.”
Many disadvantaged people in the community feel insecure about going to the gym or taking fitness courses, Aguila said. Participants in 3 Wins Fitness gain more confidence in their fitness level, without fear of judgment, and can try disciplines such as yoga, Pilates and Zumba as they develop more comfort.
“Our intention is to serve the unserved population,” Loy said. “This is a way we can do it and do it sustainably. It’s student-powered, coming from your own universities.”
Win No. 3: Achievement of Individual Fitness and Health Goals
Over its first five years, 3 Wins Fitness has created many success stories.
“I didn’t exercise for three years before I joined [the program],” said Carmen Guerrero, who found 3 Wins Fitness at the San Fernando Park in April. “Now I dance Zumba and enjoy life. My kids even ask me, ‘Mom, what’s happening?’”
Many other participants of the sessions at the San Fernando Park reported lower cholesterol or improved weight loss after joining the program.
“My cholesterol was really high, over 220,” said participant Maria Valdez. “After three months of exercising [with 3 Wins Fitness], I got it to 175.”
“I feel energetic at the end of every session,” added Maria Aceves, who has participated in the program since its beginning. “I’ve lost 35 pounds already. I’ll look like Jennifer Lopez soon.”
Saffon-King, who recovered her mobility after her car accident said 3 Wins Fitness helped her to regain physical and psychological strength.
“Everybody who knows me and what happened in the accident is amazed now,” she said. “These exercises help you to handle pain better. I still feel pain, but my attitude toward it and my movements are better.”
Over jumping jacks and weight training, Saffon-King, Aceves and Valdez have become close with the rest of their group. The social aspect of the program is one of its highlights, many said.
“We wake up in the morning and look forward to the session,” Saffon-King said. “If I can’t make it, I feel sad and lonely. When I’m here, I smile the whole time.”
Participants motivate one another and cheer for each other’s accomplishments. Regular social events such as potlucks strengthen the bonds between participants and instructors, and encourage new participants to get to know the team and program.
“I feel special [to] the teacher and to the friends I have made here,” Saffon-King added. “This means so much to me, and I am really grateful for the students who do so much for us.”
3 Wins Fitness is currently fundraising to cover the costs for the CSU expansion. Click here for more information on how to support the program.