Old Reliable Help for your Mind, Body & Spirit
By Billy Swisher, M.S.

The economy is suffering, your discretionary income isn’t what it used to be, and you are looking for a gym to workout in.  It’s a common dilemma.  You want the biggest bang for your buck.  You want the gym that offers it all for the cheapest price.  You want the latest in workout equipment, knowledgeable staff, and a safe, inviting, and motivating atmosphere that encourages you to keep coming back to adhere to your exercise program.  Day care and other fun programs and amenities for the kids wouldn’t hurt either.  Well there’s a place that might be right in your backyard that’s been there for years they you may have forgotten about - the YMCA.

The Young Men’s Christian Association has been in existence since 1844.  Despite the name, their doors are open to people of all genders, races, ages, and religions.  The mission of the YMCA of the USA is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy body, mind, and spirit for all.  Do you need to be Christian to join?  Absolutely not!  They are simply putting Christian principles into practice in the YMCA.  These principles include developing self-esteem and character, supporting families, reflecting diversity, promoting leadership, building life skills, and enhancing life satisfaction.  These principles are accepted as basic tenets of all faiths.  You’d be hard pressed to find an atheist who had a problem with these principles either.  The tag line for the YMCA for years has been, “We build strong kids, strong families, and strong communities.” 1

You may not know it, but the YMCA was responsible for inventing some of the most popular activities in the world.  In the late 1800’s, basketball and volleyball were created in YMCA gyms.  In 1970, aerobics was born in a YMCA.  The Y’s Way to Physical Fitness was introduced in 1971, and has been revised several times since then.    The Y’s Way to Physical Fitness is considered to be some to be the bible when it comes to fitness in the United States.  Several concepts from the Y’s Way to Physical Fitness are taught today in American colleges and universities. 1

The biggest noticeable difference you will find between YMCA’s and any other gyms is their effort to teach character development in every program – even fitness.  If a program cannot be offered that includes the teaching of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility, it is not offered at the YMCA.  The YMCA Character Development Program fulfills a great need in the YMCA character development initiative, particularly in having clear definitions of what Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility mean:

  • Caring: to love others, to be sensitive to the well-being of others, to help others.
  • Honesty: to tell the truth, to act in such a way that you are worthy of trust, to have integrity; making sure your choices match your values.
  • Respect: to treat others as you would have them treat you; to value the worth of every person, including yourself.
  • Responsibility: to do what is right, what you ought to do; to be accountable for your behavior and obligations. 2

Obviously, the youth of a community benefit greatly from this character development program, but adults who only use the YMCA to work out in benefit just as much.  The character development program offers a positive way to teach adult members to wipe sweat off of exercise equipment when they are done using it; to offer help and assistance to beginning level fitness participants, to be honest with your own individual accountability to your exercise program, etc. 

The fun and frolic at the YMCA is great, but you want to work out, get fit, and perhaps even lose weight, and you want a gym that will take your needs seriously and offer serious help to you.  The YMCA may still be the answer for you.  The YMCA developed its own certification programs in 1992.  The same people that were involved in developing the certifications for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) were also involved in developing the YMCA fitness certifications.  If you are looking for credibility, there you have it!  By 1995, more than 35,000 certifications had been issued by the YMCA and a revised series of more comprehensive Health and Fitness certification courses were introduced.  Because of this, YMCA’s can offer their trainings to their employees more cost efficiently.  Therefore, you can count on YMCA employees to be better trained than most health clubs. 1

Some of the various trainings and certifications that the YMCA offers include group exercise, strength training, healthy back, prenatal exercise, youth fitness, Walk Reebok (written in collaboration with Reebok University), Get Real Weight Management (written in collaboration with IDEA Health and Fitness Association), active older adult, and personal training.  There are different levels of certification that YMCA staff can achieve, from basic and instructor level for part time staff, to director and trainer level for full time staff.  Some YMCA staff are even invited to become faculty for the YMCA of the USA so they can help evaluate and develop certifications and revisions. 1

When you begin a new fitness program at any gym, you want to be sure to ask about the fitness testing that they offer.  Fitness testing is important because you can establish a baseline of your fitness level and test yourself again later to see your improvement.  As stated earlier, the Y’s Way to Physical Fitness provides a complete testing protocol for every member to take advantage of.  The YMCA has been fitness testing its members for years. The YMCA now has the largest database of testing results in the world.  What does that mean to you?  It means the results of your fitness testing are going to be extremely valid.  Between the training of the staff and the testing protocol itself, you can count on your results to be extremely accurate.

Another aspect that most YMCA’s have that normal gym’s would not have are a Medical Advisory Committee.  The primary function of the medical advisory committee is to:

  • Review screening and medical requirements for participants;
  • Review and approve medical aspects of all programs;
  • Establish safe operating and adequate emergency procedures; and
  • Assist in interpretation and promotion, especially to community groups, hospitals, and practicing physicians.

The medical advisory committee is typically made up of physicians, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and program representatives.  How many other gyms can boast that kind of support? 1

Are you thinking that you might still not be able to afford a YMCA membership?  Well think again.  YMCA membership rates compare very favorably to other gyms.  If that’s not good enough for your wallet, the YMCA also has funds available to help scholarship your membership fees in times of economic hardship.

The YMCA is not an aging dinosaur in the world of fitness.  The latest and most popular fitness programs and equipment can be found at nearly every YMCA.  In addition to that, the YMCA offers comprehensive family programming.  It’s not just a gym.  If you are considering joining a gym, contact your local YMCA and give them a look.  You can find out more about the YMCA at www.ymca.net


1. YMCA of the USA (1999). Principles of YMCA Health and Fitness.  Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
2. YMCA of the USA (2003).  YMCA of the USA Character Development Program.  Retrieved from http://www.ymcamission.org/web/L2.asp?SID=21&CID=46.

William Swisher Jr., M.S.

Billy Swisher is a professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences where he teaches Scientific Foundations of Exercise and Fitness.  Professor Swisher received his Bachelor of Science in Recreation and Park Administration from Western Illinois University in 1989.  He completed his Master of Science in Physical Education at Western Illinois University in 1993.  He is a former YMCA Program Director and Health and Wellness Trainer/Faculty Member for the YMCA of the USA.  He lives with his wife and two children in Naperville, IL. 

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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