A Fit Pass participant shows off her Fit Pass passport at the 2016 kickoff event a Pearsall Park.
A Fit Pass participant shows off her Fit Pass passport at the 2016 kickoff event a Pearsall Park. Credit: Courtesy / Salud America!

Did you know San Antonio is the first city in the United States to conduct a citywide scavenger hunt for free health, wellness, and physical activity events?

It’s called Fit Pass.

You can pick up a pass or download a bilingual Fit Pass app to earn points by attending cool summer wellness activities, starting with a free 5K run and fitness expo at Pearsall Park on Saturday, June 10. You can earn points and prizes throughout the seven-week program that concludes on July 29 with the Fit Pass Finale 5K on Aug. 19 at Lady Bird Johnson Park.

Fit Pass is important because it connects residents to physical activity options in areas that lack such options. When it comes to your health and how long you will live, your zip code is more important than your genetic code, because where you live determines your opportunities.

The origin of Fit Pass demonstrates how our city is making a big difference for residents.

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The Big Idea: Scavenging for Health

Michael Baldwin, a former special projects manager for the City, saw alarming local rates of physical inactivity, which spurred unhealthy increases in weight and disease. Latino residents especially lacked access to city parks, gyms, programs, fields, and pools.

Indeed, Latinos all across the nation struggle to access physical activity options. They face barriers like cost, logistics, lack of transportation and childcare, programming that is not linguistically or culturally relevant, and poor marketing and educational outreach, according to research by Salud America!, a healthy weight promotion network based at UT Health San Antonio.

Baldwin looked for new ways to remove barriers in San Antonio.

“There’s so many great programs, so many great locations available to people in San Antonio when it comes to health and wellness, but the question is how we get people motivated and excited to participate in these programs and visit these parks,” Baldwin said.

In 2010, Baldwin and his team had tossed around a playful idea: start a health scavenger hunt in city parks to attract more people into parks for healthy activities. But, with no funding, it remained only an idea.

The Opportunity: “We had to develop it from scratch.”

In 2012, Baldwin and his team learned the City had money for a health and physical activity program. The catch? Any proposed program had to be ready to go immediately.

Baldwin and his team dusted off their scavenger hunt idea. They searched for large-scale wellness scavenger hunts in other cities. They found none.

“There wasn’t anything like this,” Baldwin said. “We had to develop it from scratch.”

The team brainstormed how to pull it off.

Start it in summer to engage out-of-school kids and families. Use a downloadable, stamp-and-passport booklet to track participation. Fill passports with already existing free and low-cost fitness, wellness, and nutrition activities provided by the city, like Fitness in the Park, and partners, like YMCA of Greater San Antonio, H-E-B, San Antonio Sports, and the Witte Museum. Offer prizes for accrued stamps or points.

“It was easy to develop partnerships with groups implementing health and physical activity initiatives because we were already at the table with many of them,” Baldwin said.

The city manager approved the City funds for the Parks and Recreation department’s pilot program for the scavenger hunt, which they eventually called Fit Pass.

The Test: Prizes for Healthy Behaviors

Baldwin and his team tested Fit Pass in 2013. For several months starting that summer, Fit Pass awarded points to individuals and families for attending Fitness in the Park classes and using city pools, trails, and outdoor fitness equipment.

“[A point system with prizes for healthy behaviors] is a great incentive for some people, whether you’re aiming to win something, setting goals for yourself, or just competitive by nature,” Baldwin said.

The pilot program raised park attendance. Baldwin said public and private organizations also benefited from extra publicity, and families benefited from access to many free or low-cost health and wellness activities.

“[Fit Pass] gives people that incentive, that motivation, to go out and try something new, maybe something they haven’t tried before,” said Travis Davey, Parks department program manager.

The City agreed to fund Fit Pass again in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, the program was included in the Parks Department budget, enhancing its permanence. They also added FitPass as a mobile app so people can easily download it.

The Results: New and Improved Fit Pass

Program participation has grown every year, with more than 6,072 participants submitting their passports in 2016.

Davey has taken over the program for Baldwin, who has taken a new position as the City’s acting manager overseeing Clean and Green in the sanitation and horticulture division.

This year, Fit Pass also has expanded to include several new fitness activities and new prizes, as well as including a team participation option for offices, families, and friends.

The Parks department also responded to participant feedback and tweaked the scoring system to allow participants to only earn points for two fitness classes a day.

Fit Pass is an excellent opportunity to try something new and June is an excellent opportunity to spread the word about health because it is Men’s Health Month.

Spread the word and come to Pearsall Park for the kickoff event on Saturday, June 10, with a free 5K dash (register here) and wellness expo at 4838 Old Pearsall Rd. This will be the one year anniversary of the grand opening of Pearsall Park, which, under Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)’s leadership, was transformed from a landfill into the biggest park in San Antonio.

Fit Pass participants hug the San Antonio Silver Stars mascot at the 2016 kickoff event at Pearsall Park.
Fit Pass participants hug the San Antonio Silver Stars mascot at the 2016 kickoff event at Pearsall Park. Credit: Courtesy / Salud America!

The 505-acre Pearsall Park includes a dog park, zip line, disc golf course, 40-yard sprint timers, shared workout pavilion, traveling rings, and two basketball courts; the largest playground, skate park, and two splash pads in the city; and a 5K, 10K, and single loop half-marathon course that do not cross city streets or park roads.

Baldwin said Fit Pass has a bright future — and so do residents.

“We’d like to increase the amount of people participating, so we can continue to change lives in San Antonio,” Baldwin said.

The Future: Health by Zip Code

To even further change lives in San Antonio, we also need to look at opportunities at the zip code level, because health is not about pumping iron at a gym, it is about moving more and sitting less where you live, learn, work, play, and pray.

Physical activity should be the medicine of the masses, but often gets confused with exercise for the privileged.

Think about physical activity like food – you need it every day and you need it throughout the day. You wouldn’t cram all your meals and snacks in at one time. We need to move beyond the perception that you should cram all of your physical activity in at one time.

Despite conflicting health messages over the past few decades regarding exercise, it is important not to discredit the ridiculously simple, astonishingly powerful, scientifically proven benefits of walking.

Unfortunately, we all know that opportunities for walking vary by zip code. For example, people of color and low-income populations are disproportionately burdened by pedestrian injuries and deaths.

“We won’t save the number of lives we aim to without shifting our understanding of traffic violence from an individual behavior problem to a design, policy, and organizational practices problem,” according to the Vision Zero Network.

Transportation and public health agencies should reform transportation spending at all levels to tie it to larger goals for health, safety, equity, and the environment, rather than to a focus only on traffic volumes and speeds, according to the National Physical Activity Plan.

The National Physical Activity Plan provides the most up-to-date, relevant strategies and tactics to improve active living across eight sectors of society: business and industry; education; healthcare; mass media; public health; faith-based settings; community, recreation, fitness and parks; sport; and transportation, land use, and community design.

The Active Living Council of San Antonio — a public-private partnership of policymakers, business leaders, school administrators, program providers, and community members — adapted the national plan at the local level and developed the Active Living Plan for a Healthier San Antonio.

Supportive policies, funding, and programs can positively influence participation in physical activity across the entire city and, thus, reduce obesity and obesity-related disease and improve overall health and wellbeing.

Amanda Merck is a content curator/research area specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also is a VIA board member.