Jorje Mendez has lost more than 45 pounds through weightlifting and other lifestyle changes. Trainer Johnny Gonzales helps prediabetic patients lose weight at the gym he set up at the Lake County Tribal Health Clinic. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Johnny Gonzales kneels next to his client, Jorje Mendez, who is struggling through the last set of pushups at the gym.
“Give me eight of them!” says Gonzales, 59. “Be strict. This is where all the gains are made right here. If you can do this, you can do anything!”
It's a pretty typical gym in an atypical setting. Gonzales works with patients of the Lake County Tribal Health Clinic, and the gym is within the clinic itself.
Patients diagnosed with prediabetes who enroll in a program to lose weight are eligible for work with Gonzales -- free of charge.
The clinic, which targets members of the six local Pomo tribes in the county, also offers classes on healthy eating and other lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of diabetes.
Mendez, 33, an accountant and father of five, was a cross-country champion at Clear Lake High during his younger days, but settled into a more sedentary lifestyle that involved “eating a lot -- and [drinking] a lot of alcohol.” His weight ballooned to 300 pounds.
He decided to join the clinic's program after he was diagnosed as prediabetic. Grueling sessions with Gonzales three times a week have helped him lose over 45 pounds, he says.
“I feel better now,” says Mendez. “Other places you got to pay a fortune; I don’t have that. So I’m blessed to come here.”
Access to this gym and Gonzales' training sessions are a game changer for patients like Mendez, who wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise. In Lake County, a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty level, and the median household income of $36,548 is much lower than the statewide average.
The clinic’s local efforts target a rapidly growing disease among Native Americans, who are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes compared with non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service. Particularly alarming is the impact of the disease among Native young people ages 10 to 19. That population is nine times more likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic white children.
Gonzales, who has worked with the Lake County Tribal Health Consortium since 2002, says that reality requires immediate attention.
“We are seeing it. We have kids that are 12 years old that weigh 240, 250. So they are candidates for diabetes,” says Gonzales. “When you see a 12-year-old kid that is prediabetic, that is pretty sad. A lot of it is lack of education to that kid, or their parents just don’t know.”
Gonzales, a former Marine, says Native American communities in Lake County face challenges that make them susceptible to diabetes. He has witnessed how lack of physical activity and healthy foods can take a toll in people's bodies.
“A lot of aching and pains weren’t due to injuries. It’s because they were inactive,” says Gonzales of clients living at Big Valley Rancheria, one of the local Pomo reservations. “Their challenge is trying to eat healthy. On this reservation and some of the other reservations, it’s not the healthiest food.”
Even with those challenges, Gonzales remains evangelical about the healing powers of physical activity. It’s a deep-seated belief stemming from his personal experience after he hurt his back while working as a welder. Doctors told him he couldn’t do construction work anymore and recommended surgery. At the time, Gonzales balked at the procedure and chose instead to swim and exercise to strengthen his back.
“I noticed that when I was active I didn’t hurt nearly as bad, but when I wasn’t active I hurt all the time,” says Gonzales. “I didn’t want to depend on meds all the time, so I had to be active. That’s when I started pursuing becoming a trainer.”
Gonzales tells his clients that physical activity and perseverance are great medicines to combat diabetes and other ills. That helps him stay optimistic while on his job, which includes leading exercise workshops at nearby reservations. Participants often crowd the training, he says, though at other times nobody shows up. That doesn't dampen his passion for the job.
“Things tend to move a little slow in native country. Sometimes we just have to take baby steps,” he says. “And as a provider, you can’t give up or they give up themselves.”