Saturday, December 20, 2008 2:54 pm


With his multiple efforts toward the establishment of healthier communities, NBA star Alonzo Mourning is building a new South Florida, one muscle at a time.

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“The moment I get out of bed each morning I stand up, bend down, and touch my toes.”

While this piece of advice may not sound as scientific as, say, antioxidants protect your body from potential carcinogens, it would be foolish to underestimate its valuable homespun wisdom. We are all actively seeking to answer the question about South Florida’s general health status. This interesting take on assessing one’s fitness comes straight from the mouth of a man who has seen his share of hospital beds, doctor’s offices, physical rehab facilities and pessimistic omens regarding his future. Yet he has still managed to overcome all of the bumps along the way.

Yes, ignoring this man’s advice would definitely be the wrong move. For starters, he looks every bit the part of the seasoned veteran. His presence commands a level of authority that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that his 6’10” frame towers over everyone in the room. He emulates such ease and self-assurance, it’s hard not to notice.

I’ve followed the NBA for more than two decades and have interviewed players larger than life, but they always looked ill at ease with their gargantuan proportions. Not this guy. He apologizes for being a bit late to the photo shoot, although I can feel his utter sincerity. When you’re the man that lends his name to one of the largest charity functions in all of sports, your time, and presence, is in high demand. That’s just how Alonzo Mourning commits to his charities and conducts all of his obligations, with his heart.

The fact that elasticity and flexibility are considered true indicators of one’s overall wellbeing might not be front page news, but Alonzo is simply giving them as one of the many indicators during his daily fitness routine. After being counted out over and over again – be it after sports-related injuries – Mourning has endured eight surgeries in his playing career, and been diagnosed with focal glomerulosclerosis, a serious kidney ailment that forced him to seek transplant surgery back in 2003. His latest bout with the wear and tear of pro sports evolved late last year when he walked off the court with the aid of his Miami Heat teammates, fresh after suffering a nasty tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee. The fact that he refused to leave the court on a stretcher speaks volumes about his level of strength, proving to be a determined competitor. Although his tough exterior speaks volumes on the court, he is ultimately a champ of taking care of his inner health. Let me state, right here and now, that you would be hard pressed to find another athlete who is as knowledgeable and in touch with his body and health than Alonzo Mourning.

During our brief chat, Mourning paints an accurate panorama of the academic deficiencies in South Florida, and how they reflect on the region’s attitude toward health and fitness in general. He touches on the need to direct more resources towards educating minorities about specific health issues, (such as childhood obesity, diabetes and hypertension), that affect them the most. He brought up memories of growing up in an underprivileged environment, and how he appreciated the opportunity to play outdoors rather than sitting at home playing video games. On another note, he questions how much it will take for the government to get more involved in dealing with the major health issues that affect our community. It’s easy to meet the sociologist that lives within the athlete, but it’s hard to keep up the pace with the various angles he explores when posing a question to South Floridians as broad as, “how fit are we?”

A quick search for South Florida’s overall health and fitness status brings interesting results. The Centrum® Healthiest Cities Study is one of them, for sure. Done in conjunction with the Web site, Sperling’s BestPlaces. It ranks Ft. Lauderdale and Miami in 28th and 33rd place, respectively. By basing its formula on “key factors of health status, nutrition and exercise, mental health and life balance that can contribute to overall well-being”, the study grades “physical activity, health status, nutrition, lifestyle pursuits, and mental wellness”. Lifestyle pursuits, for instance, awards points for expenditures in toys and hobbies, dining out and the amount of musical instrument stores, amongst other factors. San Jose, California is the big winner, but the presence of runner-up, Washington, D.C., initiates all sorts of interesting questions.

The lean ‘Zo has poised himself as a defensive specialist throughout the later part of his storied NBA career, blocking shots and positioning around the basket in search of every possible rebound. As this role demands bulk, he has certainly been up to the challenge of preparing his body for the rough and tumble seasons guarding the rim. Opponents have come to loathe his flexing poses after thunderous dunks or devastating blocks. That being said, no one can ignore the fact that he is as strong as they come. However, in this particular photo session, everyone comments on him looking even more “cut” than massive. Then arises the question about his offseason workout and his wise toe-touching ritual. Turns out, this tough guy has found inner peace and endless physical benefits from dedicated yoga sessions. “I do yoga a couple of times a week; it helps me improve my flexibility.” He credits his longevity as a player to constantly seeking new and improved ways to train.

Not that he ignores the weight room, mind you. Core training is of the utmost importance to the seven-time NBA All Star. The only area where Alonzo seems to consider himself lenient is in terms of his commitment to cardio, due to his current treatment and rehab from his knee injury.  Although he is limited to some light work on the stationary bike, he claims yoga helps fill in any missing gaps. Strength training is also a huge part of his life, along with total awareness of what a healthy diet implies. It would seem Miami’s fitness culture, and Mourning’s vast knowledge on the subject, pave the way for a perfect match. He seems to agree, particularly when asked about the region’s overall status as a fitness mecca.

“To be fair, we got a beautiful city filled with beautiful people. There’s a lot of vanity in this town, and that leads to the beautiful people looking at themselves in the mirror every morning going, ‘hey, the workout and the time that spend on my body seems to be working for me.’ I see a lot of that with both women and men. I’m traveling a lot now and visit gyms everywhere I go. I think people are, for the most part, more fitness conscious here than in any other major city in the country. The weather also helps; it’s hot outside and you wear as little as possible, so your body must look good as well,” said Alonzo.

Apparently, this is a case when vanity seems to be working to improve our collective appearance, outwardly speaking. But Zo is quick to point out that there’s a difference between the illusion of fitness and a deeply ingrained fitness culture.

“We could be doing a much better job in many areas,” he adds, becoming increasingly animated when the discussion starts touching up on the major issues he notices via his community outreach programs. His belief that government involvement should reconsider some of the tactics it employs in future efforts towards building health and fitness awareness really ignites his energy. “You have government continuously taking money from school’s budgets, which in turn affects programs that offer extracurricular activities to our kids in the form of sports classes, the arts, and all the other activities that actually help keep them off the streets. They can’t learn the importance of physical fitness and nutritional discipline without a nurturing and energizing support system that helps them grow. Kids end up sitting in front of the TV instead of exercising and getting healthier.

On another note altogether, Alonzo sees a positive effort as gyms and health clubs are popping out from every corner in South Florida. He understands that, although our local legislation may not be as proactive to getting people outdoors, the region does offer certain elements to people who have an actual interest in improving their physical fitness. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

A certain national male magazine ranked Miami in 94th place amongst its healthiest cities for men, and 10th place as one of the fittest cities for kids to grow up in. Adding to the confusion is a similar study from a national female magazine that considered Miami and Ft. Lauderdale as the 39th and 51st best cities for women. However, based solely on the health & fitness front, the same female magazine deemed Miami the 3rd fittest city in America in 2005. Another national publication dedicated solely to natural health graded Miami as the #1 Fittest City in the USA in 2002. However, the criteria varied greatly from one magazine to the other.

The photo shoot with Mourning is almost complete, as he has to hop on a plane to attend yet another function that will ensure additional funding to one of the many programs promoted by Alonzo Mourning Charities, Inc. Just a couple of days ago, he was hanging out at Jason Taylor’s annual charity golf tournament, and is now fully involved with Dwyane Wade in turning this year’s edition of Zo’s Summer Groove into the biggest one yet. He thoroughly enjoys dedicating his time in reaching out to others: think of activities that you and your family would enjoy taking part in, and then use your considerable influences and dedication to make them happen for everyone else in the community. You can’t argue with the results.

“I think the true benefit we get, besides helping out those in need, is educating the people on the importance of giving. I know that I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today without the help and support of many people around me,” he reflects when addressed about the buzz that the ‘Zo series of events generate each year.

Alonzo is well aware of the challenges that remain in flux, especially in terms of education. “54% of our high school kids in Miami-Dade are not graduating; that’s something that concerns not only the politicians and the school superintendent, but our friends and families as well.”

He seems genuinely excited to be involved with SOBeFiT Magazine from the get-go, particularly from the standpoint of sharing many of the publication’s own goals toward achieving a positive change in our communities’ approach to fitness. Editor-In-Chief, Marta Montenegro, jokes with him during the last part of the photo shoot, while encouraging him to take part in the magazine’s quest to find the Fittest Person in South Florida. She adds some good-natured ribbing about Alonzo’s running stance, noting he looks like he’s expecting a pass from an imaginary point guard. Alonzo laughs and corrects his stance, being upfront about the current state of his knee and how he’s not big on running in the first place. The relaxed atmosphere allows us to go into the personal advice that really speaks to the community about our subject’s main concerns.

“You have to be an active participant in your own health and share that ability to help others around you. Once you do that, you can give others the tools to help change the world.” Mourning doesn’t preach, he simply repeats the mantra that has served him well through times where he’s been tested by circumstances beyond his control. The 38 year old veteran has endured an amazing share of physical challenges and still concentrates on improving his physique, despite being at the stage of his career where he could be taking it easy and counting the days leading to retirement.

So, going back to the original question, perhaps the answer reveals itself. When asking, “how fit is South Florida?” we are asking how fit are our actual sports figures and fitness role models. Don’t forget, the region is home to one of the country’s largest populations of enrolled high school athletes.

However, if we use “South Florida” in a communal sense, our overall level of fitness, health, and nutritional knowledge reveals the tri-county as an exhibition of tanned bodies parading in bikinis, with a protein smoothie in one hand and the latest diet book (the South Beach Diet, Recharged), in the other. Perhaps it’s the Zumba workouts, the countless hours of sunshine, or the fact that South Florida is constantly trying to redefine itself. Maybe the question should not be “how fit is South Florida?”, but rather, “how fit can South Floridians appear?”

In the end, the answer may be provided by this magazine’s multitude of efforts we choose to take towards crowning both the individual approach to fitness and the collective outlook on wellbeing. The vanity angle has been identified as a common factor, but we’re at a stage where it can become the footprint that leads to a deeper understanding of what physical health actually means. It’s like that old joke about the plate filled with ham and eggs as an example of commitment and involvement: the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed. When you have an opportunity to assess South Florida as a possible fitness capital of our country, it’s not so far fetched to think we’re halfway there. All we need is to make a daily effort to make small changes, not a cosmetic restructuring that is superficial in nature.

What did I learn from meeting one of South Florida’s fittest persons? Well, for starters I wouldn’t want to run against him in this particular race to become the fittest overall. But I could try running alongside him; that’s always a good place to start. And maybe he’ll pass another good tip along the way. His toe-touching nugget of wisdom has already made a lasting impression, that’s for sure.



Taking off on the biggest race of my life: Launching SOBeFiT Magazine.

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