It’s Fun to Train at the YMCA

YMCAPhotos by Jess Benjamin.

In Central Square, a community staple with a “pretty Cambridge” feel.

In the first-floor basketball gym of the Cambridge YMCA, The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” blares from a boombox, accompanied by the sounds of 11 people skipping rope—a gentle whirring noise regularly punctured by a sharp “tap, tap, tap.” Veterans of the Y’s “Punk Rope” class rotate, hop sideto- side and switch feet with ease. The newer members soldier on, adding their own less rhythmical whirs and taps to the din until instructor Michelle Deutsch tells the class to put their ropes down and grab medicine balls for a circuit of high intensity workouts.

Down a stairwell, in the building’s basement, an older, graying man shadowboxes in a 70-year old ring while a younger guy, his jet-black hair pulled back into a ponytail, throws combinations at one of many punching bags.

Adjacent to the boxing gym is a spartan, windowless room full of free weights, benches and barbells. It’s almost the exact opposite of the YMCA cardio room, now full of brand-new treadmills and ellipticals—the kind that come with TV screens and music apps installed. Throughout the day, people can be found swimming laps in the pool, getting in a game at one of two squash courts, taking classes tailored to kids or senior citizens and making use of the dance and yoga studio.

And most of this is covered by a membership that costs between $45 to $65—a price tag cheaper than or comparable to most of the area’s high-end gyms.

“I love the Y!” effuses Deutsch, who is a personal trainer in addition to teaching classes like Punk Rope. “What’s nice is that I have the most diverse crowd.” Deutsch has taught classes like Zumba and Aqua Aerobics at other area fitness centers. But here, she works with seniors and young folks, with people who come from all different backgrounds.

Kristina Courage, aerobics manager and a personal trainer, says the Y’s unique classes are one of its biggest draws. This assortment of offerings, along with the welcoming environment, fit her own philosophy that “fitness should be accessible.”

The clientele is varied—the Punk Rope class, for example, sees participants ranging from their 20s to their 50s. Clients can work towards their own fitness goals, Courage notes, whether that’s losing weight, getting better at a sport or improving strength, cardio or endurance. Bean Leonard is a marathon and half-marathon runner, and she’s noticed a change thanks to the high intensity interval training offered by Punk Rope. “My running has actually improved,” she says.

The YMCA building is more than 100 years old. It’s a bit of a labyrinth, with narrow hallways and stairwells that turn you around. But it consistently receives updates and improvements—from new equipment to a fresh coat of paint on the walls—without succumbing to the flash and gloss of chain gyms.

Down in the lower level, Camara Kadete explains how he first came to the YMCA 20 years ago. “This is where all the kids came to play basketball. I did karate here, stayed out of trouble,” he says. “It’s improved over the years—they keep renovating. I know the staff pretty well, and they know me.” While Kadete moved around later in life, he found himself back in the weight room when he returned to the area. The gym offers a familiar vibe, he explains—one that’s not unlike what you find in local bars and restaurants. “It’s pretty Cambridge,” he says.

While there are fewer families in the neighborhood these days, marketing director Wade Oliver notes that the YMCA still offers plenty of youth programming, the most popular of which is swimming. They also run a pre-school. Youth basketball and youth boxing are draws for younger crowds—the programs are designed to keep local kids active and off the streets.

“The focus is to teach kids basketball, get them ready for high school and to have fun,” says Jonathan LaRosa, who runs the basketball program. The program mostly coaches kids from age five through 13, though teenagers often return to help out. This year, they’re coaching an all-time high of 233 kids. There’s also an “each one teach one” dynamic where older kids help out younger ones. “You need to become a leader—you were once nine years old and not the best player in the world,” LaRosa says. “It’s not just stars—there are role-players.”

J.J. Jones is a Cambridge police officer who heads the youth boxing program, which is part of Cambridge Police Department’s Safety Net youth outreach initiative. The program was designed for young troublemakers, but Jones says it’s now open to all area youth, giving kids something productive to do between the time they get out of school and the time their parents come home from work. The YMCA was an unexpected home for the group, but he says it was perfect: The gym was fully stocked from the days Somerville Boxing Club used the facilities, and the Y doesn’t charge the department to use its space.

“I know this program wouldn’t have been as successful without the Y,” Jones says. “It’s all about putting community first.”

This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription. If you’re looking for more outside-the-box workouts, you can read about Olympia Fencing Center here and get a rundown on winter cycling here.

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