For all the romantic ideas about rural life and the great outdoors, Kansans living in remote parts of the state get less exercise than city folks. The empty spaces mean more driving and less walking. Obesity rates run higher. And those places suffer a distinct lack of fitness centers. Yet, as Stephan Bisaha of the Kansas News Service reports, some small Kansas towns are finding creative ways to sweat it out.
The Kansas News Service is a statewide collaboration of reporters and editors dedicated to covering health, education, and politics across the state.
Pumping Iron Instead of Gas, a Small Kansas Town Gets Healthy in an Old Filling Station
By Stephan Bisaha
It’s what you’d expect in a small gym. Treadmills. Squat rack. Elliptical machine. But 54 Fitness, located in the 500-person town of Moran, still holds remnants of the building’s previous lives. Tile flooring. Booth seating. A washroom designed for rinsing off grease, not sweat.
Before becoming the town’s fitness center, the gym was a steakhouse. And before that, a gas station. “There was a lot of grease dirt that had to be lifted up out of the tile,” said Larry Ross, a retired conformance lab manager who helped with the conversion. “We literally scrubbed each one of these tiles a dozen times.” Despite the open land and escape from congested cities and suburbs, Kansans living in remote parts of the state often exercise less than city folk. Sidewalks are rare. Driving is more common than walking. And there’s a distinct lack of fitness centers.
Small towns often lack the money for large recreational centers. Or have enough gym rats to tempt a private owner to open up shop. At least one consequence: higher rates of obesity and other diseases linked to inactivity. That’s left some communities experimenting with creative, and relatively cheap, ways to help people burn calories.
Farming is becoming increasingly mechanized, even robotized. That’s meant less physical strain on farmers, but also larger waistlines as the job becomes more sedentary.
Those living in small towns aren’t getting much cardio in either. They are less likely to spend any of their off hours exercising compared to those living in cities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rural Kansans are also more likely to live farther away from parks and recreational facilities. One fix suggested by the CDC includes building more workout centers. “Even if you want to be physically active in rural areas,” said Geoffrey Whitfield, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, “you might not have the ability to do so because the facilities just don’t exist.”
Rural Kansans run a greater risk of obesity, diabetes and dying from heart disease.
While exercise has been linked to reducing the risk for all those factors, getting a gym to move into — or stay open — in a rural town is challenging. Small, urban and specialized fitness studios have grown in popularity — think hip-hop yoga and swimming pool spin classes. But small, rural gyms lack the membership numbers needed to pay the rent. “Lots and lots of small gyms have gone out because they just couldn’t make money,” said Greg Ferris, the lobbyist for the Kansas Health and Fitness Association.
Yet economic development group Thrive Allen County said those living in the eastern Kansas county still want a place to work off the fat. That led Thrive to help small towns in Allen County earn grants to fund creative ways to bring exercise to their communities. Both Elsmore and La Harpe took rooms in their schools-turned-city halls and transformed them into workout spaces. Thrive made the investment to improve not just residents’ physical health, but also their social well-being. “I look at it as preventative health,” said Thrive Allen County CEO Lisse Regher. “The more you breakdown on social isolation, the more you help people as they age be more active and physically fit.”
Moran was looking to find its own spot for a fitness center in 2017. That’s when one of its council members thought about the failed gas station-turned-failed steakhouse. Located at the intersection of U.S. 54 and U.S. 59, it was being used as a storage space. The city decided to convert the old filling station into what is now 54 Fitness. It lacks personal trainers and locker rooms. Yet the former gas station comes with advantages. Big windows provide a front row view of a wind farm going up above the tree-line. The gym’s located at the (relatively) heavily trafficked intersection.
Moran isn’t the only place to recognize that gas stations tend to sit on prime real estate. Sneaker-maker Reebok hopes to follow Moran’s lead and turn more gas stations into gyms. Those living and working in Moran have the option to drive 15 minutes to Iola for a workout. But the motivation to go to the gym can be hard enough without adding a 30-minute round trip.
School psychologist Foster LaVon said she wouldn’t bother spending a chunk of her morning on an elliptical machine if it wasn’t for the convenience of having a workout spot in Moran. “I’ve lost ... 26 pounds.” LaVon said. “So I’m doing pretty well.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment says gyms can be helpful, but it doesn’t provide funding for them. Instead, it suggests towns invest in improving their man-made environment. Sidewalks that make a town more walkable can help the health of everyone, not just those willing to drag themselves to the gym or with the extra money to spend on a membership. But improving that can prove expensive. A mile of sidewalk can be a six-figure cost. Making a town more dense for easier walking is a huge undertaking.
Meanwhile, a grant shy of $30,000 covered the equipment for Moran’s 54 Fitness. Volunteer and donations covered most of the rest. Other rural towns with deeper pockets have decided that new gyms are worth the investment. Humboldt in Allen County recently built an 11,000-square-foot recreational center. Wichita County in western Kansas is looking to do the same. Local boosters in Wichita and Allen County said gyms are also a way to attract and retain young people. Millennials value a good sweat, along with a nice place to do it, more than previous generations.
Even a small center like 54 Fitness holds appeal for young people. Hanna Hoffman recently moved out of Moran with her fiance. Both value fitness and in her argument to move back to Moran, having that exercise option is a clear selling point. “We have a gym and there’s a restaurant and a gas station,” Hoffman said. “That’s really all we need.” (Read more about this story.)
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW Radio in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR Radio and High Plains Public Radio - dedicated to covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha.