For Leonard Wilson, what began as a passion for fitness has become a mission to improve the lives of Black cancer survivors in Milwaukee and their loved ones.
Wilson is a fitness trainer and founder of Divine Intervention Fitness, and has formed community partnerships to train youths and adults to live healthier lifestyles since 2006.
It all started with a 16-week study conducted by Men Moving Forward, a program through Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin to conduct studies on African American men with prostate cancer.
“I was seeing guys as young as 42 and as old as 81 participating in this study,” said Wilson, a Lindsay Heights resident.
Knowing that the study would eventually end, Wilson worried about what would be next for the men involved. So he applied for a grant from the American Cancer Society and Kohl’s Healthy Families program, which awarded him $30,000.
In June, Wilson welcomed his first cohort of 15 participants who were ready to start his eight-week program with a new mindset toward exercise and nutrition.
“If you exercise and change the way that you eat, you can really lower the risk of cancer,” said Wilson.
One of the evidence-based approaches Wilson uses to motivate his clients to alter their lifestyles to combat cancer is a 2019 study by the American Association for Cancer Research that shows the percentages of cancers caused by various factors, with tobacco being the highest percentage.
Wilson said he’s had participants with lung cancer who are now coming back to him since they are noticing differences in their bodies such as having the stamina to complete exercises.
The cohort meets every Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Organization for Active Seniors in Society, or OASIS, 2414 W. Mitchell St. At the sessions, Wilson gets participants familiar with workouts and provides healthy food demonstrations.
For example, Wilson teaches participants resistance band workouts to develop their upper body parts such as biceps and triceps.
Willie Ellis is among the participants from the Men Moving Forward Program who are now a part of the cohort.
Ellis is a 71-year-old prostate cancer survivor who is from the Capitol Heights neighborhood. His wife is a breast cancer survivor.
Ellis loves to work his shoulders on the military press machine. However, that’s not the only thing he does well.
“I can do four sets of 34 push-ups now,” he said.
Wilson promised Ellis that he would be able to do 50 push-ups in 16 weeks.
“For my birthday I did 71 push-ups straight,” said Ellis.
Before beginning such strenuous exercise, Ellis reads and prays to develop a strong mindset. He also listened to doctors during his cancer journey. This gave him the strength he needed to fight back.
“When I was diagnosed, I just felt confident that I could somehow survive this,” Ellis said.
The American Cancer Society released a 2022-2024 report that states that Black men are 73% more likely than white men to be diagnosed with prostate cancer and are twice as likely to die from it.
“I want to live longer and watch my grandchildren grow up,” Ellis said.
A key aspect of the help Ellis and others have received to make sure they stay healthy is education on proper nutrition.
That is why food demonstrations are held regularly in the kitchen below the gym to promote healthy eating.
“I bring in people from the community to make plant-based and healthy eating meals,” Wilson said.
Wilson is now working with his second cohort of survivors. So far, six new people have joined his program and some previous participants have come back.
Ellis and Wilson both encourage the younger generation to exercise regularly and to eat healthy meals.
“You need to focus on your future, not just today,” Ellis said.
If you are a cancer survivor and are interested in joining the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (414) 736-8708.