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Locked out of gyms, first responders turn to yoga

Behind the Badge charity offers free virtual sessions

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Typically, Beyond the Badge focuses on the mental health of law enforcement officers. Now, Michelle Panetta says she and husband, Chris, the charity's co-founders, see the bigger picture and a dire need to help a wider array of responders — and not just mentally.

“A lot of first responders rely on fitness. If we have a bad day, we can get a hard workout in at the gym to get stress out,” Michelle said. “Once the gyms closed, I asked, what ways can we still destress?”

Panetta, a probation officer, mentioned that her office does not have a gym. She said many precincts, firehouses and law enforcement offices do, but she is unsure whether they are open. She also thinks that many are hesitant to use public, shared equipment. So, Panetta wanted to create an opportunity for first responders to de-stress while keeping their bodies healthy.

“We wound up posting something about fitness, and then the Yoga Shack wrote to me saying they’d like to work with me,” Panetta said. She connected with the Yoga Shack, in Bethpage, and owners Michelle DeNicola-Turano and Cindy Mussman-Valentine, to offer free virtual guided meditation and yoga courses to first responders. The courses run roughly four weeks and throughout the month of April.

Panetta is also working with Suzanne Kraemer and Ada Coonerty of Fitness 19 in Malverne to provide online exercise classes on Fridays and Saturdays, offering abdominal strengthening, cardio and Zumba. Panetta said that physical activity is a fantastic "destressor [and] preserves your mental health.”

She doubled down, saying that being static can bring on anxiety. “Everybody is starting to get that unsettling feeling,” Panetta said. “That anxiety feeling of ‘could it be me? Do I have symptoms? Do I have no symptoms but am spreading it?’”

Panetta has already seen her latest idea put into action. She gets updates from the Yoga Shack or Fitness 19 whenever a new member signs up for the program. She even sent the offer directly to the Nassau County Police Department health and wellness department. Panetta said she hopes they send it to their dispatch team, whom she believes are a group of unsung heroes that rarely get recognition.

Beyond the Badge has grown steadily since its inception late last year, and more law enforcement officers are taking notice. When asked if Panetta would quit her job to take on the full responsibility of demanding nonprofit, she was not sure, but she did offer this: “I don’t know if I would stop my career, I’ve never been asked that. But I think the beauty of the situation is that we’re active. We’re working the same type of job and going through the same things as the people we aim to help.”

All information for the free exercise classes can be found on https://www.facebook.com/BeyondTheBadgeNY/.