How Your Local YMCA Could Save the World


Our country, it should come as no surprise, is increasingly polarized. The divide is worsened by the bubbles we live in, and the internet makes it easier than ever to only associate with like-minded people. As a result, we become more entrenched in our views and less likely to interact with “the other.” 

I want to offer a simple solution: work out at your local gym. 

Not the fancy one that’s more country club than training facility. Not the hipster one where everyone looks the same. Not the boutique one where classes cost $35. And definitely not in front of a screen on a $2,500 stationary bike. I’m talking about the gym that has been in your community forever, the one that offers financial assistance to those who need it and attracts people of all types. For me, it’s my local YMCA in Oakland, California. 

Are there gyms around me that have nicer equipment, posher locker rooms, and perhaps even more interesting classes? Sure. But none of them offer the same kind of community, diversity, and opportunity to engage with people I wouldn’t normally interact with.

On the top floor, where I strength-train, you’ve got dudes with full-body tattoos deadlifting 500 pounds next to tiny 80-year-old women curling three-pound weights. While bench-pressing, I’ve been spotted by gay people, trans people, and straight people, big people and small people, white people and black people. On the second floor, spin classes attract community members of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, including those who are blind and missing limbs. The basketball court, meanwhile, is usually buzzing with pickup games consisting of white, black, Indian, and Asian people, some of whom seem like they are an inch away from playing in the NBA, and others who seem like this is the first time they’ve handled a ball. The bottom floor houses the yoga room, where, unlike every other yoga studio I’ve ever been to, you see all kinds of bodies—not just 20-to-40-year-old slim, white ones. And then there are the kids (a surprisingly rare site in metropolitan gyms these days) running around pretty much everywhere. Everyone is respectful to each other. Everyone gets along.

In her forthcoming book The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes about research that shows that engaging in physical activity with other people connects us. Some of this, explains McGonigal, is biological—the release of feel-good neurochemicals like endorphins and oxytocin. But equally potent is the humanizing power of working your body hard while seeing others do it, too. “It is as if our biology is tuned to recognize and respond to common humanity,” writes McGonigal. When you are pushing yourself in the presence of others doing the same, you connect with them on a visceral level.

It’s true that some of my experience could be related to Oakland as a whole, which is an exceptionally diverse city. But I’ve visited other gyms and workout facilities in my area, and none of them look anything like the YMCA. They all lack the wide range of age, race, gender, and ability. I’ve also visited YMCAs in other states, most recently in Michigan and North Carolina, and they had a very similar vibe to my own. I’ve come to conclude that whatever I lose out on from not going to an upscale or hyper-specialized gym, the YMCA makes up for, because it gives me a much broader sense of community and allows me to interact with people—in real life, no less—who I otherwise wouldn’t. Does this solve all of the world’s problems? Of course not. But I think it’s a small step in the right direction.

This post first appeared in Brad’s “Do It Better” column at Outside Magazine.

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