Cycling Program Seeks to Keep City Neighborhood in Better Shape
Theresa Bowick was inspired to push her neighbors to exercise more after a bizarre series of interactions in her northeast Rochester neighborhood.
“One morning as I was running down the street a kid yelled out ‘Hey, lady, are you on probation?’ because he thought I was running from the police,” Bowick reminisced. “And then I stopped to talk to some neighbors and a man approached the group and said, ‘Don't be fooled by her and her jogging clothes; she's the police because nobody exercises in this neighborhood.’ ”
Bowick, a nurse, started the Conkey Cruisers organization to actively confront that cultural issue of struggling to maintain any kind of consistent form of physical fitness and healthy eating. As she also explains it on theConkey Cruisers website, Bowick was startled at how outlandish exercising seemed to certain residents. She then looked for an effective way to enlighten her neighbors to exercise in a fun way.
Bowick especially targeted the pre-teen youth in Rochester when she chose bicycle riding as the form of exercise to serve as the foundation for the organization’s events. She’s doing the right thing by trying to encourage exercise among young people, said Dr. Stephen Cook, a pediatrician at the Golisano Children's Hospital.
“Exercise is probably the most underused medicine that we have available to us,” Cook said. “Starting exercise in childhood, making (exercise) part of a routine and daily living, makes it easier to maintain and to keep in your life as your life adjusts.”
Cook explained that consistent exercising can be very beneficial for increasing blood flow, reducing the risk of heart disease, and possibly be influential for the brain-limiting risks of Alzheimer’s or other serious diseases.
Dr. Louis J. Papa, a physician from the University of Rochester Medical Center, further elaborated that even mundane forms of exercise can have lasting positive benefits.
“It doesn't have to be super vigorous exercise,” Papa said. “People who exercise regularly live longer and have fewer health issues than those who don't.”
Bowick launched the idea in 2011 with Conkey Cruisers officially starting in 2012. She sought to change the image of exercising by gathering the community together to partake in different kinds of bicycle riding events.
“[Society has] gone across the lifespan of an imperfect image of what physical fitness should be in your own neighborhood, so I knew there was work to be done,” Bowick said. “I chose bicycling because I could really present the program across a lifespan.”
The theory of bringing people together to exercise is something Dr. Papa sees as an opportunity to stymie what has been an ongoing national issue.
“We're social creatures,” Papa said. “There are a lot of studies that show that if you have a routine that is part of a social network, you are more likely to exercise on a regular basis.”
Coincidentally, city government executed a plan of its own that also launched in 2011 seeking to increase the number of bicycle lanes, while also having more places where people can park their bikes. The city says that more than 45 miles of on-street bicycle lanes have been implemented since. They include the El Camino Trail, a $1.5 million project that runs from Mill Street in High Falls all the way to theSeneca Park pedestrian bridge. Conveniently, it runs parallel to Conkey Avenue, where Bowick’s organization is based.
More bike lanes allow the Conkey Cruisers to ‘cruise’ more safely. Bowick pointed out that the majority of participants are pre-teen, so parents can be satisfied that their kids are practicing a healthy lifestyle in an adult supervised and safe environment. This is something that has previously been an issue.
“It’s really the perceived safety as the biggest driver for why kids might not exercise,” Cook insisted. “Theresa has looked into it enough to be able identify what are the certain barriers to exercising, and she definitely has removed some of those issues that used to be barriers.”
The Conkey Cruisers were able to attract 112 people to join in their first year. The original model of the program was designed to meet the requirements of the presidential fitness awards. A certificate signed by the president has been given for numerous years before Barack Obama’s presidency, designed to credit a physical fitness program five days a week for six weeks. Conkey Cruisers aim to complete that goal in what it labels as its season, taking place over the summer.
The course is free, and participants who attended five of the six programs received a bicycle, helmet, and lock to continue exercising beyond the program. The success the organization had at receiving the awards even earned a letter of approval from first lady Michelle Obama.
However, when the Conkey Cruiser organization was robbed in June 2015, the strategy of the model changed for the better with more events being made available. Publicity about the stolen bikes led to a surge of donations so the program could serve even more people.
“This year, after we got robbed, there was so much interest in the program, we're actually still cycling in December,” Bowick said.
Madeline Colón and her family have been really impressed with what Bowick has accomplished.
“She’s really an inspiration to me,” Colón said. “She has a lot of love for the community, and especially for the children in our community.”
Colón praised Bowick’s ability to gather people of all races and backgrounds in the community together. She claims to have learned not only about exercising, but also about eating healthier as well.
“Theresa talks about not eating too much junk food and not drinking carbonated drinks, which has helped us with our diabetes,” she continued. “I can’t even describe how this woman is. She is really just a wonderful woman of God.”
“It’s very fun because all my friends participate, too,” said Colón’s 13-year-old son, Gabriel. “We get to just ride our bikes together all over the place.” Gabriel’s favorite event was when he and his friends rode to the zoo and back.
And while Madeline cannot participate in the bicycle riding, she works closely as a volunteer while also trying to exercise more in ways that her health permits.
“When they ride it, I walk,” she said.
Bowick conveyed that it is about properly educating and giving opportunities for kids like Gabriel as the main goal of her organization. Bowick involves certain challenges as part of some of the Conkey Cruiser events that include learning about past U.S. presidents. The program is called Presidential Kicks, where young people from kindergarten to high school have the opportunity to win a pair of sneakers if they learn the names of all the U.S. presidents.
She explained that this program is part of an overall emphasis on finding ways for kids to want to learn and better themselves as individuals.
“With Conkey Cruisers we were able to capitalize on the fact that they could learn in spite of what anybody else told them,” Bowick added. “They learned this in spite of all these obstacles that have come before them, they can still learn other things and can be successful in other environments.”
While the Conkey Cruisers is an organization focused on getting more people to exercise, Bowick claims that it is about a whole lot more than that.
“It's about love,” she said. “In our community we have such a lack of love. We extend love and we want the very best for our participants in any circumstance.”