For many, exercise can be a struggle, a task that’s a hassle to complete and repeat, all in the name of maintaining one’s health. But for others, it can be a unifying activity, something that brings people together with a common goal in mind and leads to a lifelong commitment to fitness.

For Western New York natives Lona Lachuisa and Tammy Sabo, it’s been the latter—and has pushed the workout pals to enjoy exercise as part of their regular routine. 

Brought together two years ago by the Independent Health and YMCA-organized Fitness in the Parks—a 12-year-old summerlong program of more than 500 free outdoor fitness classes at parks across Western New York, led by certified YMCA instructors—Lachuisa and Sabo started by taking a cardio kickboxing class, and have since branched out to other activities.

Workout pals Tammy Sabo (left) and Lona Lachuisa
credit Fitness in the Parks with helping them
maintain their fitness goals.

“I had heard that if you want to make exercise a part of your life, to make it like brushing your teeth, something that is non-negotiable,” says Lachuisa. “That’s what I did. I made it part of my life and now go four or five days a week. That’s a direct result of Fitness in the Parks.”

Both approached the availability of the program’s free classes from different backgrounds and breadth of fitness experience. But after years engaged in all Fitness in the Parks has to offer, each has developed fitness habits they can carry into the future.

Finding her way to fitness

Before discovering Fitness in the Park, Lachuisa never considered herself much of an athlete. The theater arts major had some background in dance and had taken yoga on and off at various places over the years. But juggling life as the mother of young children, Lona was ready to get more athletic, and find a way to work fitness into her daily life.

First, she tried a 10-week run of community education courses. She thought if she could commit to something that was free, then maybe she would join a gym—but nothing really stuck. Then, she found Fitness in the Park’s kick boxing classes at Amherst’s Bassett Park in 2021.

After one session, she was hooked. She stuck with a wide variety of free outdoor classes throughout the summer, then joined her nearby Independent Health Family Branch YMCA that fall. Now, she splits time between outdoor classes and exercise at the Y, and continues to advocate for the opportunity that Fitness in the Park free classes gave her—and can provide for others eager to find their own exercise routine.

“You can show up and if you don’t like the class, you’re not out any money,” says Lachuisa. “It made me more willing to try new things.”

From dojo to outdoor classes

Before the COVID-19 pandemic altered everyone’s routines, Sabo had her regular exercise plan, with membership to a martial arts dojo and occasional outdoor yoga classes in Delaware Park as part of earlier editions of Fitness in the Parks. The onset of the pandemic stopped both. As Sabo was toiling in the transition to working from home, she stopped working out completely.

When Fitness in the Parks started its Summer 2022 programming, she thought it was a great chance to get outside and get back in the game. In line with her previous workout experience, she tried the same cardio kickboxing that initially hooked Lachuisa—and loved it. From there, she started trying more classes.

Fitness in the Parks exposed her to this and more diversified classes, ones she’d never tried like Body Pump, barre, and Pilates. She enjoyed it all so much that, after last summer, she joined the same Independent Health Family Branch YMCA as Lachuisa, and has kept her momentum going. This summer, she’s been back to the outdoor Fitness in the Parks classes at Bassett and tries to hit one every day.

“There’s no judgment and you get to meet a lot of great people,” says Sabo. “I tell people to go and try and to not give up. Stick with it. Half of the battle is showing up and the other half is giving every class a chance.”

Visit Independent Health’s website for more information about Fitness in the Parks.