PANORAMA - Strong and beautiful


COLLEGE PLACE - The hot throb of Latin music seems at odds with the cold and dark of a recent predawn morning.

On the main street of College Place, not much moves at 5 a.m. University students snooze, cars are parked, businesses locked up.

Until you come to 110 College Ave.

With light seeping around the edges of the front door and that revved-up music, WorthFit exercise studio is a dawn of energy at this time of day.

That's on the outside. A step inside takes one into a bright and sweaty carnival. To songs in both English and Spanish, a dozen or so women circle punching bags suspended from the ceiling.

Hair pulled back and faces shiny with exertion, the gloved ladies - from young adults to grandmothers - jab in a staccato of percussion accompaniment to the beat. Their feet never stop dancing.

Despite the earliness of the hour, this is Laura Angulo's best-attended class. Even as she drives this group with barely a pause, her clients can't have too much. "I keep them going so they don't have time to think about how tired they are," the business owner said, with a laugh.

Same goes for her. There's not a second during that hour Angulo isn't coaxing, cajoling and coaching. A last set of five push ups gets a backhanded reward. "Five more. You can do it, I know you can."

Then it's back to the bags. "OK, girls, we're going for the double-time on the double," she urges. "It makes it less boring."

The groans are quiet and no one hesitates for long. After a fast swig of water, the women team up at the bags, punching in rhythm, doing a boxer's warm-up shuffle in place. Following their leader, they let loose with an exuberant war whoop in one voice.

It's the sound of Angulo's long-held dream. The energy, the clients - mostly Latina on this day, the mirrored wall … is how her dream looked.

For a decade, the 40 year-old worked at Ace of Clubs in Walla Walla as a personal trainer and kick-boxing teacher while working full time for the Walla Walla Public School District. Laura and her husband were raising their children and building a furniture business in the Tri-Cities at the same time.

Something had to give in that pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle, so Laura stepped off the treadmill at Ace. Yet people continued to seek her services, especially the cardio kick-boxing classes she's known for, she said.

To answer the call, Angulo started classes in her basement, eventually renting the College Place studio earlier this year.

Within the bright yellow and red walls, she has developed ways to offer all women a way to safely exercise, get nutrition guidance and learn about muscle building.

What excites her the most, however, is the difference her philosophy can make for the health of Hispanic women, Angulo said. "The Latino culture has been left out completely of organized exercise. It requires a culture shift. Even if they talk to their doctors about their weight, they talk a little bit and they understand ‘watch what you eat.' And they translate that to not eating."

She gets it. As the daughter of a single, working mother, Angulo was often on her own when it came to meals. By age 10, she was obese. The message of Southern California - then and now - was to get thin and stay thin. The young teen began running six miles every day. She lost weight and gained ruined knees, she said.

Angulo is wiser now, but carries that same level of passion, attests Dr. Evelyn Rodriguez, wiping the sheen of hard work from her face. "Laura is very energetic. Very."

The doctor started coming to Angulo's basement a year ago, so she could fit into her "wonderful" wedding dress, she said.

It was her first step into group exercise and no one can push her out now.

"I keep coming back for health issues. I have a strong family history of diabetes. My fasting blood sugars were a little high, even though I'm technically thin, a vegetarian and I don't smoke. No one would look at me and say I'm diabetic," Rodriguez, 38, explains. "I want to stay away from that as far as possible.

Traditionally, Latinas haven't embraced exercise in a structured setting, Angulo said. Many are afraid of working with weights - "They think women are not supposed to get big and that the muscle will turn to fat. There's a lot of that."

It's too easy for her ethnic sisters to deflect body and exercise insecurities with negative self-talk, the fitness specialist knows. "We come here and think ‘I'm gorda, I'm fea,'" (or fat and ugly), she said. "We Latinas say it all the time."

Largely undiscussed in the culture is a different barrier - the Latino husband who doesn't approve of his wife getting validation outside the home, she added. "It does happen. I had one young woman, 23 or 24, she lost 38 pounds in two months. She was so happy."

The woman's husband was not. He told his wife to quit coming to WorthFit and that was that, Angulo recalled. "Sometimes husbands are insecure, and the men dominate."

There's hope, though, she believes. "I think we're moving away from that. I'm happy women are standing up for themselves and saying they are going to work out. I mean, there's no war starting, but I tell them, ‘How can we show our children how to live healthy?'"

She takes the mission seriously, holding monthly classes at her home or the studio to show her clients how to cook traditional Mexican food with nontraditional emphasis. "In our culture everything is high in fat. Everything is fried, there are tortillas at every meal."

At her house, she and her daughters make tortillas from scratch with whole wheat. Little oil is used and everything is scrutinized for ways to keep nutrition on the front burner.

That's what she presents to her clients, Angulo said. "I will take in my pans and show them how to make it quick. It's not as hard as they think. I show them all these small changes add up."

The name of the gym says it all. Health, esteem, the joy of being strong… these are every woman's rights, Angulo feels. "We are ‘worth it.' WorthFit."


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