The South Bronx is well known as the home of the New York Yankees and the birthplace of hip-hop. But in a place where bodegas and fast food options outnumber fitness clubs and juice bars, it’s not exactly a hub for healthy living.
In fact, Bronx County has been ranked the No. 1 least healthy county in New York state for more than a decade. As the third-most densely populated county in the United States, many people—and their health—are affected by its lack of resources.
So, friends Justin Mashia and Pedro Rivera launched Bronx Sole in 2016 to increase physical activity among Bronxites.
It’s been called the “running group for non-runners,” and with a hybrid run-walk group and a walk-only group, Bronx Sole has found its sweet spot by offering weekly history lessons on their three- to four-mile routes.
Listen to Justin Mashia as he talks about the power of community and how residents of the Bronx are making big changes to their health one step at a time.
Along the way, they’re inspiring their community. They’re not only learning history—they’re making it, too.
“If we’re running through a neighborhood and there’s projects nearby, I make sure that the route usually cuts through those projects. Because those are the people we want to reach. We need them to see us. We need you to know that we’re here, and we’re here for you.” — Justin Mashia
Follow Bronx Sole on Instagram (@BronxSole)
Host: This is Life Without Limits, the One Drop Podcast that gives you the tools, inspiration and support to challenge your limits. We talk with experts across all areas of health to open up more possibilities for you. Lean on us, as you step outside your comfort zone, to work your way toward better overall health and a Life Without Limits
Kim Constantinesco: Welcome back to the Life Without Limits podcast. I’m your host Kim Constantinesco, and we have a very special guest with us today to talk about the power of community in boosting our health. We have Justin Mashia who is the co-founder of Bronx Sole, which is a unique walking and running group located in the Bronx, New York. Justin, welcome to the Life Without Limits podcast.
Justin Mashia: Thanks. It’s good to be here.
Kim Constantinesco: So before we get into things, the Bronx is probably most known worldwide as the home of the New York Yankees and the birthplace of rap and hip-hop. Unfortunately for a number of years Bronx County has been ranked the number one least healthy county in New York. And this is also the third most densely populated county in the entire United States. So Justin and his friend Pedro started Bronx Sole to get people moving and really start a health revolution in the area from the ground up. So Justin, I’ll let you take it from here. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How you landed in the Bronx, how you met Pedro and why you two started the group.
Justin Mashia: Yeah, well, I’ll try to make it short. But originally I’m from Portland, Oregon. Went to school in the south and then my father was living in New York. I moved to New York, and was just here in New York to start my career in television. In doing so I moved around quite a bit, and then eventually I moved to the Bronx. It was almost instantaneous. As soon as I moved to the Bronx I just felt a connection to the Bronx. It just seemed like I was home, like this was where I was supposed to be.
Pedro was a good friend of mine. We used to run together on – Nike used to have these weekly runs. You run throughout the city, and they would have workouts. He and I met at one of the workouts. It was supposed to be the toughest workout in New York City. We did it together, and then I think we both ended up on the train platform and just started talking after the workout because it was (sounds like: death). And we just realized that we both lived in the Bronx. And from there we started running in local running groups in Harlem. I should specify the names. Like, Bridge Runners and Harlem Run.
Eventually what we would be getting tired of is realizing that when we would run with this group Bridge Runners and we’d be in Brooklyn or we’d end up in Queens, end up in Staten Island. Anywhere but the Bronx, the run would end. And a group of us that lived in the Bronx would realize, dang, this is so ridiculous. Everyone else is probably home by now, and we’re all on the train.
We still have one more transfer before we get to the Bronx. This is ridiculous. There should be something in the Bronx.
So originally I was going to just start a running group in the Bronx for runners because I was a competitive runner at the time. And that’s just what I wanted to do. But a friend of mine who’s a teacher and a runner as well sent me an article that showed me that at that time the Bronx was the unhealthiest county in the state of New York. And I was kind of shocked by it. And then I asked her, was this real? And then she said, yes. I was complaining about it to Pedro and was, like – because he’s from the Bronx. So I was complaining to him about it. And I was, like, “So who’s going to do something about this?” And he was, like, “Oh, it’s the Bronx. No one cares. They’re not going to do anything. This is just the way it’s going to be.”
And so I was, like, “Well, then maybe we ought to do something about it.” And he was, like, “Well, I thought you were starting a running group.” And I was, like, “Yeah, but a running group is only going to pull in people who are runners. It’s not going to get people that aren’t doing anything to get off the couch and be active.” So I said, “So this would be a different group. So we really would have to target people who are at home doing nothing and try to get them to come out.” I was, like, “That’s even harder to do, but that’s what we’ll have to do.”
So we just put up flyers all around the Bronx to tell people that there was a running group and basically let people know, you don’t have to be a runner to join. There’s a spot for everybody, any pace. And our first – I think there was a total of nine of us. Then from there it just started off. Oh, I’m sorry, I left out a big part. Pedro used to take me on history walking tours. Bronx history walking tours, and I was always fascinated by them. I was really fascinated once I found out that the Lincoln Memorial that’s in DC was carved in the Bronx and that the Capital Dome that’s in DC was made in the Bronx and then shipped down the river to DC. And then they assembled it. I was just fascinated by things like that. I was wondering, do most Bronxites even know about things like this?
And so Pedro was telling me no. And so when I did come up with the idea to start the running and walking group I was telling him that we should probably incorporate Bronx history into it because that could be kind of like a bait to lure people in. And since we’re basically driven and seen by social media, I felt like people seeing old pictures, now pictures and then, then pictures would kind of drum up some type of interest and make people want to come out. And so we just took a chance. Pedro didn’t believe in it. He was, like, “No, this is a waste of time. It’s just going to be me and you every week.” And I was, like, “If so, then it’ll be me and you every week.”
So we tried it and we’ve never had a problem with people coming out. And that is the number one reason for most people coming out, is they want to know the history that we’re going to discover in that evening.
Kim Constantinesco: Now Justin, I’ll admit I am a runner myself, and I have joined Bronx Sole on a number of runs now. And there is something really, really special about that element of history. Can you talk a little bit more about how you incorporate history on the runs or the run/walks?
Justin Mashia: So how we incorporate it is, basically every Tuesday night is a different route because we’re only going where the history is. So if the history is in the Hub, then we have to make a route that’s going to pass through the Hub and then bring us back to the park where we start. So there really is no order of history. Sometimes we have themes, but Pedro and I usually, we just talk amongst each other. I mean, our conversations will be so boring if somebody were to ever – CIA or somebody else tap into our conversation. These two talk about old stuff all the time. That’s all we talk about.
But we talk about Bronx history. So what we do is we start out, we meet in the park, Franz Sigel Park in the South Bronx, and we run and walk from that location. There’s three groups now. There’s a running group, a run/walk group and a walking group. Each group eventually will make it to the destination, the location of where the history stop is. Pre-COVID we would have to time it to meet up at the same location. But now that we’re in a pandemic we try to make it so that each group gets to the history location on their own and just does their own – and so what we do is we stop and then either Pedro or I would give the history. But now we have more captains. So it’s more regimented. It’s more organized.
We stop in front of – if it’s a building, if it’s a neighborhood, if it’s a statue, if it’s a mural and we tell you the history of it. And we show you old pictures if we have any of what the area used to look like or what used to be in place of this. And then we take a picture, and then we run and walk back to the park where we started.
Kim Constantinesco: And why do you think history is such a big draw for people who are either from the Bronx or live in the Bronx?
Justin Mashia: Because I think everyone, whether they realize it or not is curious and interested in the past. There are people that go on our page and they see, oh my god, I’ve walked past that building my whole life, and I never knew it used to be a hospital back in the day. Like, in the 1920s it was a hospital. I always thought it was a school. It’s interesting to a lot of people. And some people we just have they just literally just come on our page just to see the history that we’re going to do. And then they message, one day I’m going to make it out.
And eventually they do. We’ve had a lot of people that started out just following our page. Following all the history that we cover, and then they finally show up. And then they tell us when they come to the run/walk, I’ve been following you guys for, like, two years and I always said I was going to come out. And I just never did. Today I just came out.
If I could share one story. We have one member, he would always be inspired when he watched our posts. But he felt because he was overweight, he said he would talk himself into getting ready to go. And he said, he would literally get dressed to do the run/walk. Then he would look at the clock and just sit there and watch the clock until 6:00 came and then eventually went. Because we meet at 6:00. He did that for weeks.
I don’t know – oh, I think what happened was he ran into one of our captains. Our captain of the church. He ran into him in the grocery store, went up to him and just had a conversation and was telling him, I follow you guys. And (sounds like: Nova) encouraged him to come out. And he was, like, “Well, I’m going to look for you. You need to come out and join us.” And he did. He’s still a member to this day. It can take people a long time before – we’re not expecting it to be instantaneous. You see this post and you come out. If you’re not an active person, I always look at it like the angel and the devil. Angel telling you, yes, you go. Get ready, go. And then the devil’s, like, but you’re going to be slow. You’re fat. You can’t do this. You’re not going to be able to keep up. They’re going to leave you. You’re going to get lost.
That can easily talk you right on our. But it takes a person to finally listen to the positive and just focus on the positive and drown out all the negativity and say, you know what, I’m going to go and find out for myself. And I don’t think we’ve ever had a single person that’s come and regretted coming out. Never. You know because you’ve been out with us, we’re pure motivation. Someone is going to motivate you. Someone is going to make you laugh. Somebody’s going to make you smile. We’re just a positive group. That’s what makes us very rare, because we’re in the South Bronx and it’s still not known to have runners. And we still get crazy looks from people in the street. Like, what are they doing? Slowly but surely we’re gathering people from the community.
I make it a purpose sometimes if we’re running through a neighborhood and there’s projects nearby, I make sure that the path usually cuts through those projects. Because those are people we want to reach. We need them to see us. We need you to know that we’re here and we’re here for you. There’s people that look like you in this group. And I feel like that’s important, especially in communities of color that they see people that look like them. Because otherwise if you’re running through a community of color and it was just all white, then they would think, oh, that’s gentrification.
But if you’re seeing a group running and it’s a whole bunch of people that look like you, then you’re, like, oh well, what is that? Because that’s clearly not gentrification. That’s a movement.
Kim Constantinesco: Absolutely, and that was so well said. I mean, you spoke about the power of history, the power of social media, the power of community, the power of social modeling. It just seems like just a treasure chest of all the things that is needed to motivate someone to come out. And I’m curious, you guys started Bronx Sole in 2016, if I recall correctly. Is that right?
Justin Mashia: Yeah, September 2016.
Kim Constantinesco: So here you are coming up on your five year anniversary. Congratulations.
Justin Mashia: Thanks.
Kim Constantinesco: Talk a little bit about any changes that you’ve seen in the community health wise. Has the Bronx grown in some capacity to be more encompassing of holistic wellness?
Justin Mashia: So I can see the change in a lot of our members. We have members that started out walking, and now they’re running. We have members that started out in the run/walk and were complaining about the run/walk saying, oh, it’s too much. It’s too much running. I’ll call out one of our members Kayla. She started out doing the run/walk. She would complain. And let me not sugar coat anything. A lot of people come out and it’s not because they love to exercise. A lot of it is just strictly for the community and the support and the positivity of the group. Because there are a lot of people that come out just to complain the entire time.
And there’s really nothing wrong with that. We would take a complainer over you not showing up at all. So our member Kayla would come and she would complain every week. She was coming on Tuesdays and Saturdays and she was, like, “This is – it’s just too fast. It’s too much running and not enough walking.” Fast forward, Kayla is now running.
And I remember actually when I saw her with the run/walk group and she was complaining about the people being too slow. And I said, “No, they’re not too slow. You’ve just gotten to be really fast. You’re actually – you’ve outgrown the run/walk group. You should be running.” And so that’s where she has been now.
She just does the run. There’s also other members that, because it’s our five year anniversary I’ve been going back through all of our past history stops and photos and videos. And now I’m, like, “Oh wow, look at the body transformation of some of our members. I didn’t even realize that so and so was overweight.”
And then now they’re in such great shape. And wow – because I just see the people, but looking back at the photos I see a lot of body transformations for quite a few of our members. And I’m, like, wow, look at that.
Kim Constantinesco: Wow, that’s incredible. And starting a fitness routine or engaging in one for the first time is incredibly difficult. Not only from a physical perspective, but from a mental perspective too. What do you see from members, your members that help them sort of stay the course with physical activity? I mean, I know you mentioned some people come out one time, and then you don’t see them again. But others come out for the first time, and they’ve been with you for years. Why do you think they’re staying the course?
Justin Mashia: Well, those who stay the course, that stay regular members, they’ve already made it a part of their weekly routine. This is – they’ve already incorporated it. It’s not an option anymore. This is just a part of their regular weekly routine. Others I still wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing because life happens, right. So a lot of our members have kids, and with kids, I don’t have kids, but I know that life happens and things come up. You’ve got things that you have to do with your kids. You’ve got a family and everything. And I understand that it’s not – you’re not able to be as consistent as you want to be.
But for those of our members who they’ve just made it a part of their weekly routine. And some of them like waking up every day – like, to plan this. You wake up every day, it is just automatic. It’s Tuesday, it’s Bronx Sole. It’s Saturday, it’s Bronx Sole. And then my day starts. It’s important to them. And their health has become important to them. A lot of our members just came, they hated running. They didn’t like it. They said they only came because of the community support and the support of others.
And then now they’re signing up for races. And that’s not something we encourage. We don’t encourage people join us so you can sign up for races. We actually are probably the only running group in New York City that has the fewest members that run races. I love that aspect because we just have regular community members. A lot of them, they just want to come out and get the run and the walk over with and then just go home. They’re not interested in doing a race. They think that’s great for other people who races. But they’re just not interested in it. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I think that’s actually great. Because it shows us that we truly do just have people from the community coming out. Because most run groups are filled with runners that run consistently, and they run on their own. They run races regularly.
And we have a lot of first timers that run their first race. A lot of other running groups, I’ve heard from some of the other ones and they’re, like, oh, you guys are great and everything. But it seems like you guys are just pro Bronx. You guys are just about the Bronx. You’re not about anything else. And I was, like, “Oh no, yeah, you’re right. We’re intentionally just for the Bronx.” I was, like, “Because we started because we have a health issue here in the Bronx.” So that’s why we’re geared to trying to get Bronxites to come out because they were, like, because you guys don’t seem welcoming and try to bring people from Harlem or people from Queens.
I was, like, “Well, it’s not that we’re not welcoming. We welcome anyone to join. It’s just that our focus is on Bronxites because we have a health crisis here in our borough, and we’re trying to fix it one Tuesday and Saturday at a time.”
Kim Constantinesco: Absolutely, and I mean, I personally live in Brooklyn, and I take the train 45 minutes to 60 minutes each way just to run with Bronx Sole. And it’s for a lot of those reasons that you listed. It’s more about the community. It’s not about the pace. It’s not about how many miles you’ve run. It’s about being with the people that you’re running with. And you literally feel like you are part of a pack as you’re running down these streets. And people are cheering for you. And it’s just an amazing, amazing environment. I’m curious, you’ve lived in a number of different states. You’ve been part of different running communities. In your eyes what is it that makes Bronx Sole so fun and appealing for people to come out?
Justin Mashia: You know, I wonder that all the time because I’ve been in a lot of different running groups prior to starting Bronx Sole. And there would always be some type of drama or some type of – something that would always get in the way of just the running aspect. And you know from coming out it’s just – I don’t know, it’s almost like we’re contagious. Like, we run out and we attract others that are like minded. And somehow we tap into that, I think from our posts. We post silly posts all the time. We have TikTok. We do all these funny, silly things to let people know that we’re not serious.
We’re serious about our health, but we’re not serious as far as the activity and like you said, we don’t push pace. We’ve had real dedicated runners show up and they’re jogging in place when they come. And they’re looking at their watches and, like, all right, so what time do you guys start? What’s the pace? And I was, like, “Oh, you are not going to enjoy this run at all.” And so then they’re, like, why not? Because I just want to make sure that I’m running at least a nine minute pace. And I was, like, “Dude, because we don’t go by pace. We just run what feels good and comfortable. We’re not running for a particular pace because we’re running as a – we have a group. And we want to make sure that everyone can keep up. We have this saying, no one left behind.”
So there’s usually a captain in the front and someone in the back, and we never want to just leave somebody two blocks behind. Even if they are with the captain we’re, like, unless that person says, oh, I need to – sometimes people join the running group and it’s just too much running and they needed to have joined the run/walk. And then that captain can stay with them the entire – that entire time. That way they don’t feel – it’s just a one-on-one then. You just get a one-on-one with another person and hey, we’ll get back when we get back.
But I always tell people, there’s no rush. We’re in no rush to get to the destination. We’re in no rush to finish this race. We do have some speedsters now that have joined, and those who want to run faster, we usually – we’ll give them the route, and they can just go ahead and run on their own. But for the most part the majority of the group, the larger part of the group, we run at just a comfortable – we just call it a comfortable pace. And just look around and make sure everybody’s feeling right because our intention is just to get you active. We’re not trying to make you a competitive runner. We’re not trying to get you to sign up for races and things like that. We just enjoy your company, and we just want to talk and have a good time.
We just talk and socialize. We talk about everyday things that go on, and that’s what I love about our group. Is that we could show up and we’re talking about politics, but not really getting into politics. We’re just talking about things or talking about stuff that’s local. We’re talking about anything. But it’s never a serious thing. We’ve never had a confrontation or arguments or anything like that. It’s always – we always just keep it positive, and it’s not something that we have to tell people to do. It’s just what happens. So I feel like it manifests itself, the positivity. And like I said, I think it’s just contagious. I think you could look at our posts. You could – people could go on our social media pages and you could see, oh, this looks like a fun group. And we genuinely are. We are what you see.
Kim Constantinesco: Agreed, and it’s more than just the physical activity. You guys are also hosting community events from trash clean ups to other things. I mean, you travel together, travel overseas. Talk a little bit about some of these other events that you have going now.
Justin Mashia: Yeah, so we always invest in community clean ups. It’s just something that’s very important. I mean, Pedro and I started, even when he and I would do the history walks together, pre-Bronx Sole we would volunteer and do park clean ups. We love the Bronx, and we love to keep it clean. And so we just incorporated that into Bronx Sole as far as – we get grants from the City to purchase equipment for clean ups. And we try to pick different sections of the Bronx so that we’re not always just in the section that we meet. We’re also going to other sections of the Bronx.
We’ve partnered with the Boys and Girls Club and done, like, a Bronx field day. We even went to Cuba in 2019 and donated sneakers to a lot of the Cuban runners because they don’t have access to get new shoes. So we collected gently worn shoes and donated it to runners there. We also – well, we have a lot of clean ups actually. I didn’t realize. We do a lot of clean ups. But we also partner with a lot of local organizations like Loving the Bronx, the BxArts Factory. We’re just invested in the community. It’s really all about that.
And we also support local business I should say with – we do a thing called Taco Tuesday or Tasty Tuesday where the last Tuesday of every month we patronize a local small business and we all eat there to support that business. But it is a lot of research. Just like the history aspect, there’s a lot of research. It is as far as that as well because of the times, there’s a lot of gentrification going on in the South Bronx. So we have to be careful that we’re not contributing to that.
So when we’re going to these new establishments, sometimes we have to do a little research to find out, is this for us? Or is this to bring in the new people? So there is a lot of research that we have to do as far as that as well, aside from the history is already a whole lot of researching within itself.
Kim Constantinesco: Absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. So Justin, we’re running out of time, but one of my last questions for you is, what advice would you give to people looking to join a fitness group? Whether it’s a run group, a dance class, a cycling group. Do you kind of have some advice for people who are joining?
Justin Mashia: Yeah, my advice is try it. Try it. What’s the worst that can happen? I bit off more than I could chew with a tap dancing class that I had signed up for, and I thought, they said it was beginning. But obviously it was beginning for those who have already tap danced, because I was the only person in there with two left shoes. Everyone else in there was just doing their thing. But you know what, I still stuck through the class. But try it. What have you got to lose? If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. But at least you went.
It’s easy – like I said, the easiest thing is to talk yourself out of doing something. That’s the easiest thing. The hardest thing is to follow through and do it. So no matter what it is, take the chance.
Kim Constantinesco: Yeah, I love that. So I mean, what you’ve been able to do in five years for your community, a community that’s often forgotten about is just truly remarkable. You’re helping people change their health and in turn their lives. And we’re excited to see what Bronx Sole does next. But before we go, can you let us know where we can follow you on social media?
Justin Mashia: Sure. So we’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok at @Bronxsole. And that’s Bronx B-R-O-N-X-S-O-L-E. you can find us on any of those platforms. We’re most active on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.
Kim Constantinesco: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today Justin. It was great to have you on.
Justin Mashia: It was great to be here. I had a good time.
Kim Constantinesco: Stay tuned for more episodes and more health experts ready and willing to share their insight to help you achieve your health goals. We’re in this together.
Host: Thank you for listening to Life Without Limits. If you liked this episode, tell a friend. We’re here to help you take back your time, power in life so you can live to your fullest potential.