Staten Island Looks to Shed “Most Overweight Borough” Title
It’s not easy driving by Staten Island’s renowned Italian bakeries before dawn to get to boot camp, but on a recent Friday morning that’s what a group of motivated locals did, as they do at least three mornings a week. On that day, the group consisted of three women and two men who collectively have lost over 200 pounds.
“Boot camp is a non-competitive environment where we help people get fit,” says Tony “Books” Avilez, 47, owner of The Body House Gym on Staten Island. Avilez is fit, bald and slightly intimidating until he starts talking, especially about his passion, fitness, and then he lights up. He’s been helping Staten Islanders get fit for over 13 years and founded Staten Island’s first boot camp-style class about six years ago.
Avilez is also co-founder and head trainer of The Staten Island Slimdown, an island-wide initiative that runs the first 10 weeks of the year and is designed to help residents embrace healthy living through gradual, permanent changes. “With the Slimdown we’ve been able to assist a few thousand people over the past four years with how to go about changing lifestyles, making them more healthy but also doing coaching,” he says. “We’ve been doing a lot of outreach and I think it just starts with one person at a time and hopefully you effect someone in the household and it permeates the whole family. We’ve been very successful.”
Staten Island needs the help, according to a late 2013 report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, based on 2012 survey data: it is the fattest of the five boroughs, with two-thirds of the over-18 population considered overweight and 32 percent of that group, obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. By comparison, the citywide obesity rate is 24 percent.
There are several ways to participate in the Slimdown. Everyone who registers has free access to nutrition education, fitness coaching, weight loss advice and healthy recipes. Those registered as “contestants” are eligible to win cash awards and prizes by submitting before and after photos and a statement about their experience and how it has affected their lives. For those looking to be less competitive, registering as a “participant” or with a “group” gains access to everything but eligibility for the prizes.
The Body House is a popular follow-up, and membership has spiked in the last few years, particularly in boot camp, as Slimdown graduates look for a way to continue working. “Lots of people from the Slimdown don’t want it to end after 10 weeks are up,” says Avilez. “We can accommodate all fitness levels. It’s a circuit, team-oriented type of environment and we perform interval training, a combination of cardio and strength with a high premium on having fun.” He currently leads 52 boot campers whose average age is 46. He estimates the average weight loss goal is between 15 and 25 pounds.
For the duration of the 60-minute workout, smiles, jokes, and camaraderie abound, and everyone works hard, including long-time Staten Island resident Dennis Alestra, 62, who weighed 388 pounds in August 2013.
“Since I started boot camp with Tony in January I’ve lost another 35 pounds,” says Alestra, who started the program after having bariatric surgery, also known as gastric bypass, which helped him shed an initial 100 pounds. Alestra, who owns two Staten Island furniture stores and runs an auction business, got on a healthy eating and workout plan after his surgery, and the rest – of his excess weight – is history. “I love the non-competitive environment. Tony is awesome.” He also gets support at home, where his wife pre-portions healthy meals.
“It’s a slow process but one person at a time the Island is prioritizing health,” says Avilez, who has seen the situation slowly improve, from a fitness professional standpoint, since 1995. “You live on Staten Island and you pass eight great pizzerias to go to your favorite one,” he said. “But there are healthy eateries popping up that weren’t available before.”
Dominick’s Bakery and Café are an example of how the health and fitness bug can spread. After owner Dominick DiLillo, 41, joined the Staten Island Slimdown in 2012, he changed his perspective on healthy living, lost 70 pounds, and added a savory paleo menu with dishes like grilled rib eye, stuffed peppers, and portabella burgers. There’s also a “Paleo Panini” menu with sandwiches and pizzas made with homemade gluten-free almond flour dough. “If I can do it, anyone can,” he says. “Everything is better with me now; internally, externally, my health and my mentality. By adding the menu I’m able to share some of that with people and help them make healthy choices too.”
Staten Island health initiatives are coming from the top. When Borough President James Oddo took office in January he’d already voiced his concern about the health and wellness of Island residents. “The new borough president has been fantastic for someone to be an advocate for health and wellness for the island,” Avilez says. “We have been working with him on the Slimdown since he was councilman. After he took office he immediately initiated a director of health and wellness for the borough, Dr. Ginny Mantello. I’ve been working with her because I produce a workout program for Staten Island University Hospital.”
“I’ve been into health for a long time, and Tony ‘Books’ Avilez is a hero in my mind,” says the 48-year-old Oddo, who goes to a “big box” gym four times per week to lift weights and does cardio at least two times a week. “We have the same outlook; I’m not going to wrestle that box of bon-bons away from you, it’s about encouragement and education.”
Oddo is a fan of Dominick’s new healthy menu. “I eat cleanly most times,” he says, but he does have a weakness. “Cheese. If I go to Brioso and they have fresh mozzarella, there’s no avoiding it,” he says, referring to the Italian eatery that’s been in business on Staten Island since 1998. He’s also happy to offer up the recipe for his favorite clean snack, kale chips. “You toss the kale with olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and a pinch of pepper and bake it in the oven. It’s nice and crunchy and good for you.”
Oddo sees educating Staten Island’s youth as the long-term fix to obesity issues in the borough. “We have some smaller initiatives taking shape,” he says. “We’ve been talking about ‘soda-briety’ – cutting sugary drink consumption by kids and teens by having the message come from other young people. Messages are often better received when coming from a peer.” Three schools are already onboard to set up “soda-briety” programs starting with the next school year.
Oddo and Avilez agree that change is happening slowly but surely, especially with Staten Islanders getting involved in exercise. Almost 80 percent of Island households own at least one car, a figure that’s grown with the population for the past 20 years. “People on Staten Island don’t walk anywhere,” says Avilez. But there are ways to burn those calories that Manhattanites manage to burn walking around. “I remember growing up on Staten Island and there weren’t many gyms. There are a bunch of new fitness outlets, whether they’re big box gyms or boutique outlets like my own. There’s a lot popping up and I’m assuming it’s because of this demand to get fit.”
“We’ve done a great job helping unfit people get fit and fit people get fitter,” says Avilez. “You’ve got to change your lifestyle.Bootcamp, Staten Island, Staten Island Slimdown, The Body House, Tony "Books" Avilez