Cycling program rids jailed women of excess physical, emotional weight

women in transition bicycling program gearing up
Credit: YouTube / Matthew Marencik

The popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” while not shying away from graphic depictions of prison life, never shows its characters’ orange jumpsuits growing a little too tight.

Yet several studies have found incarcerated women tend to pack on the pounds, a development often compounded by ancillary drug addiction recovery and preexisting body image issues.

That’s the reason Kristin Gavin, a graduate of Temple University’s exercise and sports psychology masters program, founded “Gearing Up,” which teaches women in Philadelphia jails and residential recovery programs to get fit by riding bicycles.

Or at least it was the reason – at first.

“Initially the idea was: women in recovery put on a lot of weight,” Gavin said.

“In the streets, a synonym for ‘getting clean’ is ‘getting fat.’ Women really struggle with that. Drugs keep women thin. A lot of women have body images to begin with, so exercise can help people deal when they are putting on weight and their bodies are changing because they’re not using anymore.”

But Gavin said after the program’s debut in 2009, she learned bike riding can improve a lot more than just physical health.

“Some of things that resonated the most with our women were community integration and being a part of something,” she said.

“It’s almost like a new identity, being able to get out, to be out of house and to be with people as a cyclist or biker, not just a woman in treatment or in recovery.”

Women can become involved in Gearing Up through one of four city treatment programs or through an indoor cycling program at the Riverside Correctional Facility.

The program, profiled in the documentary film “Braking Cycles” that recently aired on WHYY (check out the trailer below), offers incentives for returning participants, including a bicycle of their own once they hit 100 miles.

“I think for some women, part of the success of our program is just being integrated into a healthy community early on in recovery and begin able to recognize, ‘there are other options and other communities I can be a part of,’ then going on to find and create their own,” Gavin said.

By the numbers

71%

Of incarcerated women gain a significant amount of weight, according to a study from the Center for Primary Care and Prevention at the Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island.

1.1 pounds

The average weekly weight gain for each jailed woman, according to the study.

1/2 pound

The average weight gain, over eight weeks, of an incarcerated woman who participates in Gearing Up’s indoor cycling program.

$157

The cost for Gearing Up to host a one-hour indoor cycling class at the Riverside Correctional Facility.

$95

The cost, per day, to incarcerate a person in Philadelphia County, according to a Pew Chartiable Trust study.


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