Tampa Bay Times
November 2012

Tampa Bay Times November 2012

LARGO — Ana Ramirez let out a groan after each situp on the incline bench. Her 14-year-old daughter, Audrey, refused to let her give up.

"Come on, mom. You’re almost there.”

"Ohhh,” groaned Ana.

"Twenty-one, 22 … almost there,” said Audrey.

When her mother completed 30 situps, Audrey held up her right hand.

"Okay, high-five. You’re done,” the teen said.

The women were spending Thursday afternoon at the Fit Zone, the city’s new outdoor workout area in Largo Central Park. They moved among 10 pieces of equipment that are much like you would see in a traditional gym — contraptions like an elliptical, an air walker and a chest press.

While the mother and daughter worked out, Luis Ramirez was on the playground keeping an eye on kindergartener Julian. For years, Ana and Luis have taken turns at playground duty while making sure each gets a crack at some aerobic exercise on the park’s trail.

"With this new equipment, now we can work on our muscles, too. It’s like we have our own outdoor gym,” said Ana.

Joan Byrne, the director of Largo’s Recreation, Parks and Arts department, has a mantra: "A healthy community is found through physical activity.”

But because of long-term budget constraints, creating new programs is a slow, challenging endeavor. So when she heard of a Pinellas County Health Department grant offering a chance to purchase $46,000 worth of outdoor fitness equipment, she grabbed it.

The city, which will install a second Fit Zone at the new Highland Complex next year, joins Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg in receiving the grants. "This is not touching Largo’s tax dollars,” Byrne stressed.

Because most of the equipment is built for more than one person to use at a time, like the two-person vertical press, the Fit Zone also is a community builder, Byrne said.

"Sometimes you’ll know the person you’re sharing the equipment with and sometimes you’re meeting someone new,” she said.

Another one of Largo’s fitness programs has seen a financial boost as well.

Brandon McIntosh, program supervisor at Southwest Recreation Complex, and Dr. Chrisoula Kiriazis, an internist and primary care physician at Morton Plant Hospital, have released Fit Kids for Life: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children. The book was funded by Kiriazis.

In 2010 McIntosh began FitKids, a program to increase overall health in youth through fitness and nutrition education. In the book he offers insights about children as well exercise strategies. Kiriazis, who had watched her two sons, Winchester and Zachary, thrive under McIntosh’s supervision in the program, provides medical and nutritional expertise.

"We hope the book brings more awareness to the challenges of keeping kids healthy and generates money for the program,” Kiriazis said.

"With my sons, I’ve watched how hard Brandon works, and I’ve realized the struggle it is to run recreation programs. There is such limited funding, and kids’ health, nutrition, fighting obesity is something we can’t ignore,” she said.

The pair came up with the idea for the book about six months ago when she and McIntosh were talking about ways they could reach more children.

"Money can’t be pulled out of the sky to expand the program,” she said.

On Oct. 16, Byrne and McIntosh traveled to Anaheim, Calif., to make a presentation on Largo’s FitKids program at the National Recreation and Park Association’s Congress and Exposition. "We laid the program out, how we made it successful, combining nutrition and activity, and how parents are involved,” Byrne said.

What’s the next step in fitness for Largo?

"The next big thing is launching our new Highland Complex,” Byrne said. "That will have different kinds of opportunities for fitness. There will be an indoor walking and running track, and also an extra playroom that will combine electronics and fitness activities. So we’re excited about that.”

The Highland Complex, off East Bay Drive, is a $17 million project. It is replacing a building more than 40 years old and will be completed in the spring.