Noemi Ramirez kissed her love handles goodbye this year.

And better yet, she’s getting healthier with lifestyle changes prompted by Programa Puente, a Spectrum Health Healthier Communities program focused on improving the health of the Latino population in Kent County.

Ramirez has been going to free Zumba and cardio exercise classes in her Grand Rapids, Michigan, neighborhood since March. She also stopped drinking soda and limits the number of tortillas she eats.

It’s all helping her beat the odds.

Heart disease is the top killer of all Americans and stroke is fifth on the list. These risks are even higher for Latinos because of a high rate of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes in this population.

“Exercising and watching what I eat took away the love handles and reduced my blood pressure and cholesterol,” Ramirez said. “I feel more energized, and my kids tease me because my shirts are too big.”

As part of the 10 percent of Kent County residents who are Latino, Ramirez faces cultural barriers that make it hard to stay healthy. She speaks very little English, she works third-shift, and she lives in a neighborhood that had few exercise opportunities until Programa Puente brought classes to the Roosevelt Park Lodge near her home.

The hardwood floors of Roosevelt Park Lodge are getting a lot of traffic these days.

After a recent Zumba class, Isabel Ornelas explained that she was drawn to Programa Puente when a member of her church lost a lot of weight and reduced his blood pressure.

Ornelas and her husband took advantage of free biometric screenings to check their cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and blood pressure. Then they attended a “Know Your Numbers” class to understand biometric screening results and learn how to improve them.

It was a life-changer. Now the mother of four is much more active, drinks plenty of water and has expanded her cooking to include lots of fresh veggies, including many she never tried before.

“I feel good. I have never been the kind of person who exercises, but now I see it’s important for my whole family,” Ornelas said. “My 13-year-old daughter comes with me to Zumba and Pilates classes, and my hope is that my husband sees improvements in me and decides he wants to be healthier, too.”

Of course, results don’t happen overnight. But participants are good at encouraging each other through the program.

“Don’t get discouraged,” Ramirez said. “When you first exercise and eat healthier, you won’t notice a change. But little-by-little you’ll notice the difference in your weight and you’ll be more energized throughout the day.”

In addition to health screenings and exercise classes, Programa Puente includes “Cooking Matters,” a class that teaches healthy eating and offers culture-centric tips, such as substituting vegetable oil for lard when cooking tamales. Nurse case managers also offer free help with health issues, especially for those with high-risk factors.

“When we began, we helped Latinos in our community by removing social barriers with referrals for health care, transportation, legal services and housing,” director Jose Reyna said. “Now we’re focused on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes through health screenings and lifestyle changes. More than 1,000 people have participated over the past two years, and we’re seeing positive results.”

Improving the health of the medically under-served Latino population supports Spectrum Health’s mission to improve the health of the community by ensuring that everyone has access to health care, Reyna noted.

During the past 15 years, Program Puente has helped thousands of area Latinos get healthier. To learn more call 616.391.6199. Learn more about how Healthier Communities makes a difference and improves the health of our community.