Michele Braley is an avid canoeist. She’s also a bicyclist, a runner and a skier, and she’s competed in a few triathlons.
One thing she never thought she’d be is a member of a health club. “I just assumed that exercise is something you do outside,” she said.
About five years ago though, Braley, a social worker with Hennepin County, wanted to strengthen her arms to compete in a canoe race, so she signed up at the Blaisdell YMCA.
“I couldn’t think of a way to do that without going to the gym and lifting weights,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll try it for three months.’”
That was five years ago. Braley’s been working out at the same gym ever since.
“I ended up really enjoying it,” she said. “I found it very meditative—I’m just there by myself, I’m not talking to other people, I’m just focused on myself and my own thoughts. I found it more relaxing than I expected.”
If you can find a health club that suits you, as Braley did, going to work out can be a comfortable and even comforting experience. Now—how do you find the gym that’s perfect for you?
What you want, what you need
A fitness center that’s woman-friendly will have some standard features, said Rachel Seidman, director of the Melpomene Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes physical activity for women and girls. It should be “appealing, accessible and affordable,” she said. “Extended hours. Safe, clean, inviting childcare facilities staffed by people who actually like kids and have experience with them.”
In addition, said Seidman, there should be trainers and instructors “who have expertise in working with women at all different life stages—from teenagers dealing with body image issues and teen sports, to pregnant and postpartum women, menopausal women, women recovering from mastectomies and other surgeries. They need to know how to help us at each stage.”
There’s also the intangible, she said.
“When you walk into a gym, you should feel good about yourself for being there, not bad about yourself compared to that perky person over there,” said Seidman. “I want a gym where I can feel part of a community, not a competition.”
Many factors contribute to the atmosphere of a gym, said Seidman: the way the staff interacts with clients (are they welcoming and supportive?); how the machines are set up (in a row, facing a television, or in a circle); and whether or not there are workshops and events where clients can get to know each other.
Support means different things to different people though: one woman may want to develop relationships with the staff and the people she works out with, while another may want to keep to herself. The ability work out in solitude is one of the things Braley likes best about the Blaisdell YMCA.
“People kind of leave you alone,” she said. “You can pretty much set your own pace.”
Braley also values the diversity she sees there: members come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and they wear whatever they’re most comfortable in.
“I would say what you look like is very much deemphasized, and there’s very little in the way of people dressing up in their workout gear,” she said. “When I first started going there, I would see large-sized women that I knew were really fit, running on the treadmills and working out, and it just made me think about how being fit isn’t always reflected in our body size.…[The Y] feels like a very welcoming place for people of any ability and it really does reflect the neighborhood that it’s in.”
More than a floor and four walls
Sometimes you don’t have to go looking for the right health club—it finds you. Kristine Holmgren, chaplain at the Shakopee Women’s Prison, found her gym, the SweatShop in St. Paul, after both her college-age daughters got part-time jobs there.
Holmgren, like Braley, is an outdoor enthusiast who counts Nordic and downhill skiing among her hobbies. She lives near Como Lake, and in the summer she swims almost every day. What she found at the SweatShop was more than a place to exercise: she found a community of strong women who were supportive of her and good role models for her daughters.
“At the health club, my children were welcomed as the capable, dependable, thoughtful young women they are,” Holmgren wrote in an email. “The encouragement was powerful. It supplemented my parenting in much the same way a man might have—encouraging, uplifting and challenging my daughters in ways I did not know and could not anticipate.”
The girls’ father had left the family a few years before, said Holmgren.
Holmgren’s youngest daughter, Claire, still works at the SweatShop and will graduate from Macalester College this spring. She plans to attend law school in the fall. Grace, the older sister, is in a Ph.D. program in social psychology at the University of Minnesota and officially resigned from the SweatShop last spring, but she’s still on call and works occasionally.
Her girls’ success is partly due to their relationships with the SweatShop members, Holmgren believes. “The women who work out at the SweatShop are a family of self-reliant, independent and thriving entrepreneurs, business women, political and social advocates and feminists,” wrote Holmgren. “They are also beautiful.”
Things to consider when choosing a gym
How much is a membership? Are there additional fees for child care, the pool or the tennis court?
Some health insurance companies reimburse part of the membership fee (typically $20 per month) if you go at least eight times a month.
Some employers help with the cost, too: Michele Braley uses the Hennepin County’s Sick Leave For Fitness program, which allows her to trade in unused sick leave for cash that she can use to pay for her Y membership or for fitness equipment.
Will the gym be open when you want to work out?
Is child care available? Is there a fee? Is it clean, safe, welcoming and staffed by people with experience?
Do you want to bring your whole family to work out or play? Is the fitness center set up to accommodate this?
Is the gym near your home or work? Another way to think about this is: how much time are you willing to spend driving to and from your gym?
Does the place have the facilities and machines you want? Are you looking for a track, a pool, a racquetball court? Are there enough machines so that you won’t be waiting around to use one? Maybe you’d like to try yoga, Pilates or aerobics: does the fitness center offer classes or workshops?
Does the staff make you feel welcome? Are they helpful? How about the members: is there a level of community (or solitude) that you’ll feel comfortable with? What’s the dress code like? Are the machines clustered together or in a row?