Originally published in Worth, December 20, 2021

Fitness is a profound driver of overall health and well-being as every home-bound person knows at this point, nearly two years into the global pandemic.

During my most recent interview for Worth, I spoke with Jonas Serrano and Elana Margulies-Snyderman of Phyt Cares, a minority and woman-led nonprofit focused on educating youth and communities in New York City, Puerto Rico and nationwide through fitness.

Serrano is the founder and president of Phyt Cares, the 501c3 U.S. tax-exempt and 1101.01 Puerto Rico tax-exempt arm of Phyt Gym, which is headquartered in Midtown Manhattan with a second location in San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Serrano launched Phyt Cares in 2013 to build on the success of the impactful training he became known for as he engaged Phyt Gym clients’ children, bolstering their knowledge of fitness benefits early on. A Puerto Rican from the Bronx, Serrano formed Phyt Cares to give back to young people in communities that are like those of his youth. Since inception, he has been instrumental in touching lives throughout New York City, keeping at-risk youth off the streets, reducing recidivism and more. Phyt Cares’ anchor partner, Acacia Network’s Youth Department of Corrections, awarded him a Certificate of Appreciation in November 2015 for his dedication and commitment to a positive impact on the program’s participants, dozens of 14-to-18-year-old males who were once part of the criminal justice system.

Serrano launched Phyt Cares in Puerto Rico in 2017 to empower the island community via fitness. Coupled with Rooster’s Café, a tandem business launched in 2021, these entities have created jobs, empowered young entrepreneurs and artists and supported Afro-Puerto Rican community members in the agriculture industry through the purchase of local produce to serve at the café.

Serrano founded his first Phyt Gym in 2005 in New York City. He is certified by the National Federation of Personal Trainers, holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and has studied mixed martial arts under Ultimate Fighting Championship Fighter Rafael Sapo Natal. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he spearheaded Phyt Cares’ Virtual Phytness classes for youth and communities worldwide, so people could stay active and healthy from their homes. 

Elana Margulies-Snyderman is the cofounder and secretary of the Board of Directors of Phyt Cares. She manages the relationships, grants and progress reporting of its various New York City partnerships, including YAI, Kool Kids Passaic, Chess in the Schools, Isaac Newton Middle School in East Harlem, Acacia Network’s Youth Department of Corrections and more. In addition, she spearheads Phyt Cares’ annual fundraiser every November, which draws over 100 alternative investment industry professionals, where she orchestrates corporate sponsorships, a silent auction, donations, ticket purchases and more. Leveraging her network, she has also organized various other events to raise money for Phyt Cares, including the annual International Women’s Day workout, as well as a tennis tournament, wine tastings, shopping events and more.

Margulies-Snyderman’s passion for fitness began in middle school where she played tennis, rising to become captain of the varsity tennis team in high school. She later discovered a love for running and has finished six marathons, along with half-marathons and shorter-distance races. She has been working out at Phyt Gym since it first opened.

Margulies-Snyderman is the senior manager of publications at EisnerAmper, one of the nation’s largest full-service advisory and accounting firms. She oversees, produces and edits various publications for many of the firm’s largest industry groups and service lines. She coordinates thought leadership pieces and industry-related content, including podcasts, within these groups for both internal and external audiences.

Q: The fitness industry changed here in the U.S. (and globally) since we went into lockdown in March 2020. Please speak to how Phyt Cares has continued to serve the underserved during this unique time.

Serrano: Since the start of the pandemic, we realized that the lack of in-person accessibility would prove challenging for the underserved youth and communities here in New York City, Puerto Rico and globally, so we launched complimentary virtual classes during this time—not only for the underserved but for everyone. Since the pandemic was a global problem that no one was immune to, it was our mission to address it accordingly. It was crucial during these challenging times for people to maintain physical, mental and emotional health and for everyone to keep their bodies and minds strong through fitness and proper nutrition. We were compelled to do our part to empower globally, supporting first responders at the beginning of the pandemic not only through fitness but also by opening our New York location to them, providing stress release and respite.

Margulies-Snyderman: To increase funding for these efforts, we provided paid virtual classes for women in the financial services industry. Thank you to the women (like you, Nancy!) who supported Phyt Cares, sweating for our cause during the pandemic.

Of course! I could use more classes as Omicron sets in. I’m curious…Since Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, how did Phyt Cares help?

Serrano: Interestingly enough, Elana, Reema Shah, our director of marketing, and I visited Puerto Rico in May 2017 to expand the franchise. I always wanted to give back directly to my native island.

Our timing was incredible given the needs that cropped up soon after our exploratory trip. We opened Phyt Gym (and Cares) in Puerto Rico at a ground level location on Ashford Avenue in San Juan. (Ashford Avenue is like our 5th Avenue here in New York.)

Margulies-Snyderman: This zone of relaxation and stress release in the form of our new San Juan location proved invaluable after the twin hurricanes took their toll. One Puerto Rico-based trainer, Richard Delgado, stayed at the facility for the whole crisis and relocated to New York shortly thereafter. He has since been a trainer at the Phyt Gym in New York.

The new Phyt Gym in Puerto Rico turned into a broader community center, bolstered by a successful $17,000 fundraiser in New York City two months after the 2017 hurricanes.

What other types of educational efforts, beyond fitness, does Phyt Cares help to facilitate?

Serrano: In my view, any community problem is a Phyt Cares problem.

Through our partnership efforts with the Acacia Network’s Youth Department of Corrections in New York, we are addressing societal issues around at risk-youth, and through a partnership with el Complejo Correccional Bayamón in Puerto Rico, we work with incarcerated women and victims of domestic abuse.

With respect to educational efforts beyond fitness, Phyt Cares has been instrumental in job creation and empowering people on the island with entrepreneurial skills. We are very proud to employ people in a place with high unemployment like Puerto Rico. For one thing, we allow other trainers and other business owners to leverage Phyt to run and grow their respective businesses. Local artists, musicians, etc., can use the space for performances. We support local farmers by supplying Rooster’s Cafe with produce grown in the Afro-Puerto Rican community.

What drew you to this cause specifically?

Serrano: As my father was a bodybuilder, fitness has always been a part of my life. It is the primary way that I deal with difficulties in life. I just love empowering kids with this tool for facing tough challenges.

Margulies-Snyderman: After Phyt secured its first opportunity to work with a high school in the Bronx, educating children about the benefits of being active and healthy, the vision evolved into an official nonprofit around 2013. It has been eight years since Telemundo featured our high school program in the Bronx, after which we received a flood of inquiries from parents in the tri-state area. It first started as a program for youth and their parents to enhance family bonds. Other initiatives followed, including our anchor partnership with Acacia Network’s Youth Department of Corrections in 2015. In 2015, we also launched our partnership with Isaac Newton Middle School in East Harlem for eighth graders to prepare them for high school, teaching them self-respect, respect for authority, leadership and more. As Jonas was born in East Harlem, this initiative is a very meaningful one for him.

In New York City today, aside from the Isaac Newton initiative, we have many prominent partnerships including YAI for young adults with special needs; Kool Kids Passaic for youth with special needs; and Chess in the Schools for low-income youth to supplement their chess education. I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge Carlos Gonzalez, president of Phyt Gym NYC, who trains all the youth in our Phyt Cares NYC programs. His passion for giving back to these participants comes from the heart. 

Serrano: I had a certain vision for Phyt Cares, and Elana, Carlos, Richard and Reema all took it to another level in New York City, in particular. Without their dedication and commitment, the sheer number of successful projects we have undertaken would not be possible, and I would not have been able to expand so successfully to help my native Puerto Rico. 

What inspires you to reach greater heights with the effort?

Serrano: We serve a diverse range of populations, infusing leadership and team building training into all that we do. It inspires me to bring the universal language of fitness to such a broad array of people, from middle school students in East Harlem and special needs youth and young adults, to at-risk youth, women and many others.

Margulies-Snyderman: Fitness has certainly helped New York City residents who have felt increasingly isolated and depressed in recent years. Stories about changed lives in this context are a big part of my inspiration.

Are there any new Phyt Cares initiatives underway?

Margulies-Snyderman: Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown, we have more New York City programs than ever before serving diverse populations. However, the more resources we have, the more we can expand our programming to new groups or populations.

Serrano: We’ve had to ride the wave of many Puerto Rico-based initiatives shutting down during COVID-19, given the island’s stricter protocols. In 2022, we hope to refresh old and launch new partnerships on the island. But as I mentioned earlier, Phyt Cares gave back to the Island in other ways through job creation, encouraging entrepreneurship and giving local artists a venue to highlight their work.

Due to generous donations, we were, in turn, able to donate fitness equipment to various groups on the island in 2021 as well.

How do you measure the impact that you are making?

Serrano: Big nonprofits have metrics and statistics. We measure our impact differently.

Margulies-Snyderman: Teachers at the East Harlem high school Isaac Newton report that the Phyt Cares fitness efforts encourage better behavior and attendance. Through our partnership with Kool Kids Passaic, one mother continually raves about how her (special needs) son is now newly inspired in many ways, frequently asking her to take him running and steering family meals toward healthier choices. Through our partnership with YAI, one young adult in our program uses Phyt Cares’ fitness program each week as cross-training for hockey. He plays hockey on weekends and needs to build up his strength and endurance with another type of complimentary fitness.

Please speak to our society’s move toward initiatives that make a difference. Given the many challenges that we now face as a globe and as a nation, will it be enough?

Margulies-Snyderman: It is never enough. So much more can be done, and every dollar makes a difference. At the charity Phyt Cares, in contrast to the Phyt Gyms which employ trainers and the like, we don’t have any employees like larger nonprofits. It’s a volunteer workforce.

As overhead is low, all the donations go directly to the communities we serve. Given our inclination to remain lean, we are nimble when launching new initiatives. We always leverage partners, even in the case of initial pilot programs.

What surprising ways has philanthropy changed in recent years?

Margulies-Snyderman: Good question. Philanthropic organizations in general have seen an up step in contributions since the pandemic hit. Every cause was touched in one way or another by the health crisis, and there are more donations than ever, given increased needs. This is surprising because so many people have lost jobs during this time as well; budgets are tight.

In advance of our virtual fundraiser last year, we did not know what to expect.

Serrano: We were shocked to achieve a record fundraising year in 2021. 2020 was also a record year, at the time.

How has your approach and attitude to fitness and self-care evolved in recent years?

Serrano: It has always been a top priority for me since I was born, along with healthy eating and habits.

Margulies-Snyderman: I’ve always prioritized it, working out most days, but the pandemic really put an emphasis on self-care for people who didn’t previously make it a priority. Before COVID-19, it was harder to make a night for myself due to work commitments. However, the lockdown has enabled more time at home to relax and make sure the workout happens.

Any advice for people looking to get back on the workout wagon?

Serrano: Great question. No two people are the same. Start small and be consistent, even working out 15 minutes a day a few times a week. Then gradually increase your efforts over time. 

Margulies-Snyderman: A wonderful thing that came out of the pandemic is the concept of shorter duration virtual fitness classes, for 30 minutes. You don’t need a lot of time or equipment to get a great workout.

What are your favorite types of exercise?

Serrano: Strength training, mixed martial arts and boxing.

Margulies-Snyderman: Running. High intensity interval and strength training.

How can people support your efforts?

Margulies-Snyderman: There are a few ways. 

Worth readers can check out our current fundraising page where they can fund a specific cause: HERE.

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