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Ten Lessons I Learned from Trying Every Class Offered at My YMCA

Kerry Graff, MD tried every class offered by her local YMCA and learned 10 valuable lessons.

April 17, 2024

I have never been a gym rat. 

I much prefer to be physically active by engaging in activities that feel less like exercise and more like I am just “busy having fun”:  hiking, cross-country skiing, biking, swing dancing, and swimming in Canandaigua Lake, from which my community in upstate NY gets its name.

Six months ago, however, when a brand new, beautiful YMCA opened in Canandaigua, I joined because it has a great pool.

Well, it actually has two pools, which is what makes it great!

Despite living in a lakeside town, you can’t swim in the lake here for at least half of the year…unless you are a polar bear.

 

Many years ago, I belonged to the old YMCA with its one small pool, but as someone who loves the relaxed, meditative nature of swimming, I resented having to share my swim lane with the barrage of speed demons who were continuously slapping at my heels.

In a moment of frustration nearly a decade ago, I dropped my membership and gave up swimming altogether from October to May.

The new YMCA, however, has both a warmer, shallower pool used as a general recreation area and for aqua exercise classes and a cooler, deeper pool used primarily for lap swimming.

Finally there is enough water “bandwidth” that I rarely need to share my lane, and I am thrilled to be, once again, swimming year round!

 

In addition to checking out the new pool when I joined, I investigated what exercise classes are offered.

I had only a vague idea what most of the classes might entail.   What do you actually do in Boot Camp and Body Pump?  What the heck is Qi Gong?  How does Power Yoga differ from Active Yoga?  What is the difference between Aqua Fit, Aqua in Motion, Aqua Circuit, and Aqua Bootcamp?   On a whim, I decided to take one new class each week until I had tried all 24 of the classes geared for adults.

Since I am only 55, I excluded the classes specifically designated for folks 65+, although I did get my very first senior discount when I signed up at the YMCA.  (I am not at all sure that the few dollars I save each month is worth the emotional trauma of qualifying for a senior discount at this stage of my life, however!)

And then, in a moment of insanity, I broadcast my plan on LinkedIn, where, as a lifestyle medicine physician, I feature all things related to healthy living.  Exercise is Medicine, after all!  This very public declaration of intention shamed me into staying committed to my quest despite some hearty misgivings on multiple occasions.  Just this past week, I completed the final class. Here are ten lessons I learned along the way:

 

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Lesson 1- The aqua exercise classes should be recategorized under the heading “Doing weird things with pool noodles and balls.”

These classes are a fabulous option for folks with joint limitations!

That said, I found riding a pool noodle like a horse with a large cadre of bathing suit clad senior women (and one poor guy dragged there by his wife) to be a tad bizarre.  We were all on full display, via the very large glass window that separated the pool from the lobby, to absolutely everyone who entered the building.  To make it even more embarrassing, I really sucked at “doing weird things with pool noodles and balls”!

I have fallen off a real horse twice in my life (which is only one time fewer than I’ve ridden a horse) and I didn’t fare much better riding the fake noodle version.   Also, trying to keep a wet ball squeezed between your knees underwater while exercising is not an easy task!

Those balls are super slippery!!

Either you don’t squeeze tightly enough and the ball pops up and bonks you in the nose, or even worse, you squeeze too tightly and it shoots out and hits the poor ole granny next to you, instead.  My only saving grace was that all the water exercise classes are offered between 8 am and 1pm on weekdays, so my ineptitude was observed primarily by senior citizens who, generally, are much more forgiving than your average gym goer!

 

Then, in a moment of insanity, I broadcast my plan on LinkedIn, where, as a lifestyle medicine physician, I feature all things related to healthy living.

 

Sadly, those class hours also end up excluding many people who might benefit but work a typical 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday schedule.

If you struggle to be physically active due to joint issues, don’t worry so much about which “doing weird things with pool noodles and balls” class to take and just try to find one that you can fit into your schedule.

 

Lesson 2- I really, really hate Boot Camp.

I am sure it would be better once I learned all the exercises at each station.

As a first timer, however, rotating through 16 different exercises with minimal instruction in how to correctly perform them while simultaneously being pushed to go as fast and do as many reps as possible was a recipe for injury.  I am sure my “form,” whatever that was supposed to be, was complete trash.   I survived the class without injury only by the grace of the gym gods.  Or maybe it was because I skipped most of the burpees.

Anyway, I will never know if it gets better because I’m never, ever, ever doing it again.

But don’t be a quitter like me!

I recommend that, should you decide to try Boot Camp, come to your first class early or meet with one of the trainers at a separate time, to get instructions on the form you are supposed to use in the various exercises.  Then, during class, focus on doing each exercise as carefully as possible and only speed up to the point where you don’t get sloppy, despite any loud urging from your drill sergeant, ummm, I mean instructor!

 

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Lesson 3- Qi Gong is delightful!

It’s like Tai Chi, only much easier to learn because you don’t have to coordinate as many parts of your body at once.

I don’t understand all the “moving around your Chi energy” stuff that the instructor talks about, but the movements help increase balance and flexibility and are very meditative.   No, you won’t get an aerobic workout and you aren’t likely to gain much muscle.

Try it anyway.  I always leave class feeling like a graceful goddess, and since you now know that I can’t even ride a pool noodle without falling off, that is saying a lot!  Seriously, I love this class so much that I rearranged my work schedule to be sure I could attend the one and only time it is offered each week.

 

Lesson 4- Zumba is humbling, even when you have dance skills.

The music is great, and dancing is a wonderfully fun way to get and keep your heart rate up.

When you go for your first class, however, everyone else will know the dance steps and you will spend the entire class figuring them out just in time to go on to the next move.

This is not a class to take once to know whether you will like it or not, unless you don’t like music, in which case we can’t be friends.  On that note, I think I’ll try it again next week!  Coming, friend?

 

Lesson 5- Always wear padded bicycle pants to spin class, even if the class is only 30 minutes long.

Yowzah!   Even when the bike is perfectly adjusted to your frame, those bike seats are rock hard and pointy!  I felt that class for three whole days, and it was not my legs that were complaining!

 

Lesson 6- TRX rocks!

I really thought I’d hate the Total Body Resistance eXercise (TRX) class, but nope!

You use your body’s own resistance to gain strength, moving closer to or farther away from where the straps attach above you to adjust the difficulty of the exercise.  This means you don’t have to know exactly which weights to grab ahead of time, as you do in Body Pump.

You can tailor the workout on the fly to be the perfect level of pushing yourself without killing yourself.

Brilliant!  Since I need to work on my upper body and core strength, this class is staying in my weekly workout plan, and it just so happens to be right before Qi Gong!  Yay me!

 

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Lesson 7- Give yourself grace.

During week 2 of my YMCA adventure, I came down with Covid-19 for the first time.

That’s pretty good, considering I’m a physician and managed to avoid getting it for three and a half years!  And, for the record, I picked up Covid-19 out dancing at a brew pub, not at the YMCA.  Anyway, I had a fever of 103 degrees F for three days and for about 6 weeks I was short of breath while doing activities despite using an inhaler.  I didn’t do jack squat (or any kind of squats!) for 6 whole weeks.

Once I felt better, I restarted trying one new class per week.  Fine.  Life happens.  Get on with it!

 

Lesson 8- I don’t care what kind of yoga class it is, I’m all in.

I love gentle yoga, restorative yoga, power yoga, active yoga, and even family yoga, where the kids remind you how flexible you used to be and will never be again…

Also, I noticed that while I was gaining muscle by taking various classes at the Y, I simultaneously was losing some flexibility, especially in my shoulders.

While I do a quick 15-minute standing yoga routine every morning, I realized that I need to do more to stay flexible and am putting at least one yoga class on my weekly workout plan going forward.

 

I love gentle yoga, restorative yoga, power yoga, active yoga, and even family yoga, where the kids remind you how flexible you used to be and will never be again…  

 

Lesson 9- If you want to get something accomplished, make a plan with a check list!

I dilly-dallied my way through the first 14 classes, randomly taking a new class here or there when I had free time and a class I hadn’t taken yet was available.

However, after taking the first 14 classes, I needed to make an actual plan because the remaining classes weren’t so convenient.  Once I listed which classes I had left to complete and what days and times they were offered, I became almost obsessed with getting them checked off and did all of the last 10 classes in one week!

The good news is that since I’d already taken a bunch of classes, I was in significantly better shape than when I started and taking so many classes that close together didn’t kill me.

That said, on my final day when I did Group Cycle just a few hours after doing Body Strong, my legs didn’t have it in them to stand for the really strenuous parts of the ride.   I am counting the class as done anyway!!

 

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Lesson 10- Humans naturally gravitate to doing activities that we are already good at and avoiding the ones where we suck.

We need to find out where we are weak and make a concerted effort to improve in those areas.

In my case, my legs are strong compared to my upper body, and therefore I’d much rather do a spin class (with my padded bike shorts, of course!) than anything that makes me work my upper body.

Oh, and while I thought my core strength was pretty decent, Pilates class showed me that I was dead wrong, because it nearly killed me.  My abdominal muscles felt as if I had the 24-hour stomach bug for 3 days!

That said, you can find classes that address your deficits that you enjoy more than others.

For me, that will be TRX rather than, yup, you guessed it, Boot Camp!


My final thoughts-
The YMCA offers a ton of exercise options with a wonderfully supportive community rather than a bunch of type A personalities trying to outdo one another.

One woman in my TRX class was exceptionally kind in helping me figure out how to keep my heels in the straps during the floor work.  Another woman in a “doing weird things with pool noodles and balls” class traded me her textured ball after my slippery one shot out and bonked her in the eye.  (Ok, it is possible that she did this more for self-defense than out of kindness.

However, she was smiling, so I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt!)  And I can’t tell you how many times I was told “You got this!” or “I was so much worse when I took this class for the first time” or “It gets so much easier.  I hope you come back!”

While I still prefer to do my physical activity outside a gym, yes, I’ll absolutely be back.

Kerry Graff, MD

Kerry Graff, MD

Using the power of lifestyle medicine to prevent and reverse chronic disease.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

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