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Publication Date: Friday, January 10, 2003

El Camino YMCA's increased facilities are complemented by a total fitness program El Camino YMCA's increased facilities are complemented by a total fitness program (January 10, 2003)

By Diana Reynolds Roome

On a recent rainy Sunday, the new El Camino YMCA's Wellness Center is packed with people of all ages and abilities focusing on fitness: men pound treadmills and practice leg presses, teens lift weights and strengthen skiing muscles on the ellipticals, women catch up on reading or talk while pedaling or stair climbing, kids (11 and up) row and run.

I'm headed for the ab crunch exercise machine, by which I hope to reduce the all too visible signs of a sedentary work life as well as recent holiday indulgences. The only reason I dare to approach such a machine -- which resembles a small torture device to the uninitiated -- is because the YMCA's new Personal Fitness Program has made it seem not only possible but positively inviting.

"Designed to take the unfit individual from inactive to active," promises the brochure, adding that it can deliver a "better you" in 12 weeks for no charge beyond the monthly membership fee. The one extra ingredient required: your commitment. This is so important that during the first session, instructor Ron Sette asks each member of the group (four women and three men, though the sessions are normally limited to five people) to sign a statement acknowledging that this program can only work well if we put in the effort and don't let anything deflect us from our goals.

Everyone has good intentions but we all know this is easier said than done. The members of our group note down excuses we habitually make to wriggle out of the exercise we know we need. They range from work commitments and childcare to previous injuries and boredom. If it stops us from exercising, no barrier is trivial.

"I can get unmotivated so easily," says Nan Bajka, even though she knows that exercise is important in controlling her diabetes. "I don't feel like it, I'm too tired, sometimes I tend to be on the depressed side. Or it could just be a blister!"

"I've been saying for several years that I need to do something," says CPA Dennis Young, who acknowledges that he's been gaining five to six pounds a year. "The only way is to put it on the calendar and treat it like any other appointment or business meeting." His wife and colleagues have encouraged him to get with the program, though soon after signing up, his wife broke her foot so time set aside for exercise was needed to ferry her to doctor's appointments and take on extra jobs at home.

Sette finds a plausible reply for each objection. It's possible to get a worthwhile session of exercise, including cardio, strength building and stretching in less than one hour, he points out. High quality childcare is provided on site. YMCA staff routinely check with members' doctors to make sure any restrictions or cautions are taken into account.

"Everything here is gradual. You have to be patient, but that's the safest way," says Sette, who explains how to monitor heart rate, and how we can each find our own safe maximum range. Sette also suggests arranging to exercise with a friend, colleague or family member.

"I see a lot of smiling faces here," he says. "People feel good, see friends, build confidence and skills."

As well as weekly group meetings, each of us has a one-on-one 15-minute session every few weeks with Sette, who explains and sets up the Cybex machines to our personal requirements. Once introduced to the machines and linked into the FitLinxx system, workouts are recorded and we can set goals and monitor progress -- whether in terms of weight lifted, miles covered, or weight lost.

Seeing progress, however small, is the first step to getting hooked -- and it's a powerful incentive. Roy Selinger, an engineer and marketing executive, had no problems with motivation. Since losing his job last summer, he had already managed to drop 30 pounds in eight weeks of intensive walking and running. But the ability to keep score and compare himself with others on FitLinxx added a new dimension to his fitness regimen and helped him set new goals.

"My main goal with the Y was to build up muscle, which I had lost while dropping so much weight. I was unsure about the machines at first and afraid I would hurt myself -- once you do that it really sets you back."

Being shown how to use the machines properly has given Selinger confidence, and though he continues to lose weight he is also increasing his strength. "Last month, working out four or five times a week, I lifted a million pounds." His 13-year-old daughter also uses the Cybex machines.

The YMCA facility on Grant Road recently doubled its size to 32,000 square feet, making it the premier YMCA branch out of more than 30 in the Bay Area. The staff is on a mission to encourage everyone, whatever their age, weight or current fitness level to come in and find something that appeals to them. The Wellness Center, which offers a wide range of exercise machines and weights, is only the beginning.

Youth basketball is attracting hundreds of young people; volleyball and badminton were recently added. A youth dance program for children through fifth grade has just started. Babies and tots challenge their muscles and minds with colorful play equipment in the Gym Ventures room.

At the same time, triathletes come to train through programs like Masters swimming as well as on the cardio and strength equipment.

There are more than 20 classes to choose from, including several kinds of cardio-strengthening aerobics, pilates, strenuous and gentle yoga, Tai Chi, karate for children and adults, stationery cycling at different levels, arthritis aquatics, aqua aerobics, and fit and flexible classes -- 130 sessions per week in total. Chair aerobics will be added in early 2003, and the lift accommodates wheelchairs, so everyone is included.

"It's almost a one-stop shop," says Frankie Hanson, senior health and fitness director. "Each person has to decide what's best for them, so we offer many different varieties of exercise. People should do what they like to do"

They should also feel supported in attaining their goals, says Gigi Pettey Carter, associate executive director, who adds, "We hold people's hand more. We care about why you're here and what your goals are."

Fitness trainers are always available to explain equipment and offer advice and encouragement. In addition, personal training instructors, who hold degrees in exercise physiology or kinesiology are available to answer more complex questions or to design training programs for individuals. Doctors and therapists from nearby El Camino Hospital refer patients to the Y, confident that they will be given thoughtful advice about exercising safely.

"It's a very nurturing environment," says Suzette Spencer, a Web designer who has finally managed to get back to a regular exercise program since suffering multiple injuries to her knee over several years. She first tried other gyms, but found them unstructured, overcrowded or intimidating. "Here it's clean and appealing, and there are normal people working out," says Spencer, who is noticing improvements after seven weeks of the personal fitness program. "I haven't lost any weight yet, but my muscle tone is improving and I have less pain in my injured knee."

She regularly meets her friend Nan Bajka to work out together, and now Bajka's husband is coming in too. He enjoys keeping score on the FitLinxx system, and competing with Nan -- who doesn't mind if he beats her. "It keeps me accountable, even though it's just a machine," says Bajka. "And it's better than laying around like a sloth watching a soap opera."

Ultimately, the payoffs for keeping fit far outweigh arguments about not having enough time and energy, since getting into a regular exercise routine -- losing weight, firming up, building strength and flexibility -- amply repays us in energy gained. Not only for the short term, either. By reducing weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart-rate through exercise, we may gain ourselves a few more years and a better quality of life to boot.

"I used to see people running in the street and I'd see people exercising through the window of the Y while I was crawling in traffic, and say 'that's not me,' " said Selinger. "Then one day I said, 'that could be me.'"

Now others may see him running and exercising through the new windows of the Y, and wondering if it could be them.

It could indeed. All they have to do is come on in.

The El CaminoYMCA at 2400 Grant Road is offering free sample classes and Personal Fitness Program information sessions all this week. A personal tour is available on request any time. Call 969-9622.
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