Staying in the game: Building community through fitness

This article originally appeared in our Boston Globe series, Explored: Health and the Modern Athlete, and can be found HERE.

There are many well-known names in the world of New England sports, but there are a few under-the-radar athletes who are just as committed to their teams and their health. Meet Antoinette Hemphill, Aliese Lash, and Johnny Lujares.

Boston is undoubtedly a sports town, but it’s not just the professionals taking the field, court, or ice. Antoinette, Aliese, and Johnny are just a few of the thousands of Bostonians and New Englanders who participate in adult recreational sports leagues as a means to improve their health and well-being while also finding a community to belong to.

Recent studies show that nine percent of American adults participate in some form of recreational sport, with tennis, pickleball, softball, and kickball among the most popular choices. But there are options in New England for almost any sport or activity you can think of.

Finding herself and her community

Ten years ago, Antoinette was struggling with her physical and mental health. As a mom of two children under two, she was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression and knew she needed an outlet. When she couldn’t find the right fit, she created it, and Mama Beasts was born.

“Working out, plus the community, was just as important to my recovery as medication and therapy,” she says. “To be clear, I needed those things too, but I believe (and research shows) the mind and body connection is incredibly important.”

Founded by Antoinette over a decade ago, Mama Beasts is a fitness program and community for moms in the Greater Boston area. To this day, being part of this community has allowed Antoinette to make exercise a consistent and realistic part of her life. And while she has taken a step back from running Mama Beasts, she encourages other women to feel confident enough to find their own sports community.

“Fitness communities and leagues have a way of organically opening you up and making you comfortable over time,” Antoinette says. “The most common thing moms told me over the years after they checked out a class is ‘I wish I came sooner.’”

Redefining running culture – one step at a time

When Aliese moved to Boston in 2016 for graduate school, she was looking to connect with people who shared her values: inclusivity, social justice, being active, and caring for each other. And after an invite from a co-worker, she found that community in the PIONEERS Run Crew.

“As soon as I walked up to the group for my first run, I was immediately impressed by how welcoming and supportive everyone was,” Aliese says. “It was also super refreshing to see a group of other BIPOC folks who were supporting their health and wellness through running.”

PIONEERS Run Crew (PRC) was founded in Dorchester in 2017 by Sidney Baptista, and is the first black- and brown-led distance running community in Boston. They lead Wednesday night crew runs that offer 1-mile, 3-mile, and 5-mile distance options and participate in many local team races. Outside of her love for fitness and sport, the PRC has also empowered Aliese to focus on another of her passions – social justice.

“I am proud of all the ways that PIONEERS Run Crew centers and celebrates runners who hold marginalized identities and who may not be seen as ‘traditional runners,’” Aliese says. “We are committed to changing that norm and emphasizing that no matter your background or your pace, you belong here, and you are a runner.”

Making the team and lifelong friends

Johnny has always been fiercely competitive. And when he needed to find a way to stay physically fit without hitting the gym, he found an adult tennis league to join, and the fire was ignited. Today, Johnny participates in seven different recreational leagues, many of which cater to the LGBTQ+ community, including Cambridge Boston Volleyball Association (CBVA), Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance (GLTA), Pride Sports Boston, and Tennis4All.

“Being a part of these leagues, especially the LGBTQ+ run organizations, has tremendously affected my mental health and wellness in ways that help me cope with my insecurities,” Johnny says. “As a gay Filipino immigrant, it has helped me become more confident as a person and I feel like it helped me discover a community and a sense of belonging.”

Over the last five years, Johnny has traveled across the U.S. and around the world for GLTA tennis tournaments, and in his spare time he runs the social media accounts for Tennis4All. And while he appreciates the competition, Johnny has gotten far more in return off the court.

“I have made friends with some of the greatest people that I would consider as close friends,” he says while encouraging others to give it a try. “You will have so much fun, and it will change your life as it did mine.”

As evidenced by Antoinette, Aliese, and Johnny, not only are there health benefits to joining group fitness or sports leagues as an adult, but opportunities to build community as well.  Your activity of choice may even qualify for a fitness reimbursement through your health plan. Taking the first step is the hardest part, but your physical and mental health will thank you.