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A Team Effort: Veterans, NPRA, & Coca Cola Foundation to Make America Fit

Laura Ortiz as instructor and coordinator of Miami’s Coca Cola Troops for Fitness program.  Ortiz is instructing her younger students.
Laura Ortiz as instructor and coordinator of Miami’s Coca Cola Troops for Fitness program. Ortiz is instructing her younger students.
Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany Miller, Independent Publicist and Digital Strategist, Chicago, Illinois

When you're in it only for yourself, initial success is always finite - and fleeting. When you're in it for others, they succeed - and so do you. Dharmesh Shah, Founder and CTO at HubSpot

Ortiz is clearly excited  about wearing a new prosthetic leg she has just received – the “Nike Flex foot.” “It is very close to my real leg,” she remarked.
Photo from Larua Ortiz

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Theodore Roosevelt

What do veterans, the National Parks and Recreation Association (NPRA), and the Coca Cola Foundation have in common? The "Troops for Fitness Recreation & Open Spaces" initiative they jointly run in communities across the nation with the aid of Coca Cola grants; the program is based on the innovative idea of employing the talents and expertise of our nation's veterans to lead fitness workouts and serve as role models for healthy living. The program is primarily run in community parks and recreation facilities where people gather.

This article focuses on one especially successful program of this kind -- Miami Dade, Florida's Coca Cola Troops for Fitness initiative (http://linkd.in/1p5QnbV )coordinated by Latina Laura Ortiz - a former Army reservist who lost her right leg below the knee in a non-service-related motorcycle accident in 2008. Through sheer persistence and inner strength, she went through grueling physical rehab and surpassed all expectations to become a Paralympic gold and silver medal winner
and complete two Triathlons (medalist in one). She is also Miami's lead instructor for Troops for Fitness.

When Ortiz was selected to spearhead Miami Dade's program in fall 2013, she couldn't have been more overjoyed: "I couldn't jump high enough," she said (http://kef-dia.com/smt/troops/examiner.html) Ortiz, who is now NPRA's official spokesperson for the program, more recently trained with the U.S. Paralympic Parasailing team, and is currently training with the Miami Heat Wheel Chair Basketball Team for the 2016 Paralympic Rio Games. She explains: "I am able to get involved in these major projects with the community because I have access to technology and equipment from the Veterans
Administration and through the Coca Cola Fund."

Ortiz with two dozen veterans throughout Miami Dade are primarily engaged in creating new , fun, and high energy ways for thousands of residents to tackle obesity, get fit, and rediscover the joy of being active. Their programs range from Zumba, Tai Chi , yoga, water aerobics to boot camp fitness -- all available at zero to low cost for participants. Healthy cooking classes and nutritional and dietary lessons are among the choice offerings for promoting a healthy life style. Their primary goal: to help combat health woes of communities, stemming from sedentary life styles, poor eating habits, poor nutrition, and lack of free/low cost fitness opportunities for those who need them the most.

"Our participants are of all ages [13 to 84 years] and physical activity levels," Ortiz noted. "They each have a particular challenge in mind when they participate. They see incremental, concrete results from their efforts. Each time they reach a goal [incremental step to a larger goal], it is instant gratification for them as well as for me..... They learn that they must go outside their comfort zone to challenge their bodies... they also learn that obesity is tied to specific things they are eating... It is fun, it is not a job anymore when I see positive results....When they become fit and active and learn to live a healthier life style, the positive results multiply - confidence builds up, better sleep patterns develop, and they are better able to integrate and have good relations with people around them - a true 'Win Win.'"

Ortiz is especially proud of the unconventional methods she is using to promote fitness. "We have structured our exercise regimen to incorporate 'Outdoor Fitness Zones' and boot camp style fitness classes. The idea is to encourage people to take on bigger challenges and for veterans to share their experiences in the classes for people to model," she noted.

As Ortiz explains, a veteran instructor can model the in-depth conditioning that is part of military experience, and can serve as guide for people who are returning from conflict situations and want to integrate with society; "We serve as the connection they need to build relationships with the community," she explained. Ortiz has also found that her personal triumphs as a Paralympian and Triathlon athlete has encouraged people to defy their personal circumstances and try harder to overcome special challenges.

"We start by determining, through a circuit training program, the baseline for each participant (i.e., their level of preparedness) to deal with the challenge they have in mind. We then prescribe a routine that focuses on strengthening weak areas of the body and building endurance, which leads to losing weight, improving posture alignment, breathing, balance, coordination, and agility... We help them choose goals that are measurable, attainable, and realistic... each are small goals that can be reached...the idea is to pass through a progression of building blocks... In the "Enhanced Fitness " classes, for instance, they tend to forget they are exercising because they are having such fun from the music, the socializing... their ability to seemingly outdo their capabilities..."

The Miami program served over 7,000 residents in its first year and expects to reach 25,000 by 2016. Six of the sites are using Outdoor Fitness zones and are leading boot camp classes. Veterans can also choose to a get a Parks permit and run their classes for profit.

"Since cost and time restrictions can become impediments to joining the program, we provide flexible times and keep cost down. In some locales, it is even free," Ortiz noted. Even when personal/family issues interfere, commitment levels are growing, Ortiz observed, particularly when participants start experiencing positive changes: muscle build-up leading to less wear and tear off the joints, greater flexibility, and better coordination.

As Ortiz notes, the program has had a positive outcome on our youth, our active older adults, and the veteran instructors. "I believe that when we focus our efforts in three key areas - nurturing the potential of kids, helping people live healthier, and supporting our neighbors, we all succeed," she added. And by the way, Ortiz is clearly excited about wearing a new prosthetic leg she has just received - the "Nike Flex foot." "It is very close to my real leg," she remarked.

The Troops for Fitness program first launched in Chicago in 2012 and then in San Antonio, Miami Dade, and Newark in 2013. It is set to expand to 12 major metropolitan areas by 2016 including Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Sacramento, Honolulu, and Newark. Each will have its unique set of programs run by veterans. The programs will be based on the demographics and program needs of individual communities. With the backing of the Coca Cola Foundation and the NRPA, these initiatives should bear fruit. The level of success, however, ultimately rests on the coordination, the sharing/giving mentality, and leadership qualities of veterans like Ortiz.

As the spokesperson for the program, Ortiz continues to fan the flames of this major initiative through live presentations at venues across the country. Her message is one of hope and rejuvenation. Regarding her own motivation, Ortiz stated: "I knew I'd gotten a second chance. I felt a great sense of urgency to give back, and to take advantage of the opportunities that would come my way....My goal is to continue to do things I fear. So far everything I've accomplished is because I've allowed myself to remain open to possibilities."

For information on classes in your city, log into www.nrpa.org/troopsforfitness. Here are also some live videos produced by the Spanish/English national media during Ortiz's tours to venues:

Spanish Segments:
El Nuevo Dia: http://video.latino.msn.com/watch/video/entrenando-como-soldado/xoqv2m93

http://video.latino.msn.com/watch/video/moda-de-estar-en-forma-al-estilo...
video/xonxvddu

English Segment:
http://video.foxnews.com/v/3733120488001/workout-tips-from-our-nations-
strongest/?playlist_id=930909787001#sp=show-clips