I never look better than when I work out at the YMCA. My muscles bulge bigger, my skin glows youthfully, and when the lights are a little low, people could easily mistake me for a young Tom Cruise. I looked so good there today, I might just go back again for more exercise tonight.
All that happy hallucinating is just one of the many benefits of working out in the pursuit of good health while in the company of carbo-burning compatriots at the Y. When I put together all the benefits of being a Y guy, they add up to this; more often than not, enough reasons to get off my couch and head to the friendliest sweatshop I know.
Amidst all the perspiration I find lots of inspiration for my aspiration to be healthier. There are little old ladies who are so stooped with age they cannot lift their heads high enough to look at the walking track more than 10 feet ahead of them but are there hoofing it almost every day. There are young people dragging an extra hundred pounds of overweight around with them to all the different exercise machines, determined to reclaim their futures from obesity. There are people who have had strokes, heart attacks and many other health care curses thrown at them just throwing it right back at life despite their limitations.
When I need the inspiration to get up and go work out at the Y, I think of those people, and it helps me get to it. When I see them struggling on despite their limitations, I hope a little of the strength they have rubs off on me. When I think I am having a bad day, I imagine what it would be like to have to lift weights with only one arm that works, lose a hundred pounds or hurt with every step. Then I stop my workout whining. So I’m not just a better person for working out at the Y but for imagining myself there walking a few miles in some of my Y buddies’ sneakers.
I get a little humbling there, too, which is a good workout for my ego. When I am really cranking hard on the treadmill I am sure some other exercisers look at me and eat their hammering hearts out. But when I walk over to the weight-lifting side of the Y, compared to some of those beefcakes, I look like a member of the Y Weightlifting for Weenies Class. There are people lifting weights at the Y who look like they could easily bench press me over their heads, and those are just the weightlifting women. Some of the men look as if they could bench press the women bench pressing me.
The Y is a center of social support for exercise. Girlfriends on adjacent stationary bikes are sorting out guy problems, guys on adjacent treadmills are sorting out girl problems, kids sharing a basketball are happily trash-talking each other’s moves but then each trying the other’s move out, three generations of a family are walking around the track together, big kids are teaching small kids, fathers are teaching daughters, and one friend is supportively nagging the other about the need to lose a few more pounds.
America could find a model at the Y and similar community fitness centers for becoming a healthy nation. If our communities became places to live that are like the Y, places that surround us with the happy pursuit of health at every turn, offered a rich variety of exercise options, none of us swing a barbell in them without hitting an inspiration to improve ourselves.
We need to surround each other with support for healthy lifestyles in workplaces, churches and other social settings that celebrate our journeys to better health and not just at fitness centers. We need whole neighborhoods that work out together. We need to make physically active family play time a new national pastime and much more.
Why am I high on the Y? The secret sauce to a healthier nation is there — let’s get cooking.
Erik Steele is the former chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. He now works for Summa Health System in Akron, Ohio.