How the YMCA Saved My Marbles This Year

Essential Service

You know the famous song about the YMCA by Village People. Everyone does.

Young man there’s no need to feel down
I said young man pick yourself off the ground
I said young man ’cause your in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy

Young man, Are you listening to me
I said, young man, what do you want to be
I said, young man, you can make real your dreams but you’ve got to know this one thing.
No man does it all by himself

It’s written to young men who are new in town and need a place to stay. But let’s pretend it’s written about a middle-aged woman. Instead of being new in town, let’s say the aforementioned woman has been in COVID lockdown for far longer than 15 days to flatten the curve.

This past year, the Y was an essential service to me. And by the looks of it, many others thought the same thing.

Young man, there’s no need to feel down

There are endless benefits to fitness, exercise, movement: it boosts serotonin levels, encourages metabolic health, and lowers anxiety and depression. And my intuition says that’s always better to face any challenge as a healthy person.

Everyday Health‘s article “Why Exercise May Protect Against COVID-19 Complications” talks up the protection we get from the antioxidant enzyme ecSOD (extracellular superoxide dismutase). EcSOD is super beneficial against another acronym ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). Syndromes are generally bad but this one is associated with a higher death rate from COVID-19.

EcSOD may “stave off or lessen the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome. The antioxidant ecSOD helps protect against ARDS and other heart and lung diseases,” according to the study’s author Dr. Zhen Yan of the University of Virginia.

Our skeletal muscles naturally produce ecSOD and spread it through the the blood to the lungs, heart, and kidneys, and other organs.

This mighty enzyme is the “only known antioxidant enzyme that naturally works in the fluid, noncellular part of blood know as plasma.” Increasing your production of ecSOD = increasing the benefits of activities already laden with so many health benefits. Yan says: “We often say that exercise is medicine. EcSOD set a perfect example that we can learn from the biological process of exercise to advance medicine.”

To simplify this, for those of us who like to contort our bodies into the shapes of Y-M-C and A during the song above, you ain’t just pumping your muscles during exercise, you’re pumping up the production of ecSOD. And it’s an antioxidant which means it’s running our blood stream tracking down and destroying free radicals that lead to disease.

“There’s no need to
be unhappy!”

In the decade that brought us Y.M.C.A., scientists were discovering free love and free drugs in the form of a chemical called endorphins. Endorphin is the combination of the word endogenous (made from within) and morphine (a narcotic). A made-from-within-narcotic! Goes well with the good vibes and positive energy of the Seventies. Can you dig it?

Scientifically, endorphins are any group of peptide hormones that bind to opiate receptors and are found mainly in the brain. Endorphins reduce the sensation of pain and affect emotions. Or to expand: Any of a group of peptide hormones found in the brain that acts as neurotransmitters and have properties similar to morphine. A neurochemical occurring naturally in the brain and having analgesic properties.

I didn’t know much about this powerful enzyme but I’m well aware its effects, the runner’s high drug, the “feel good” chemical. This is the drug that everyone should be clamoring for. There is only upside, no hangovers. And they are free (or really cheap). Though sweat and extra laundry may be a byproduct, you will feel good, content, and at peace with the world.

In high school after basketball or track practice I believed I felt so good because it was over. But it was drugs all along as I discovered later. Endorphins make you want to do the tough things day after day.

“You can make real your dreams”

My Y is a dynamic place. There are programs for young people. There are classes for old people. There are individual work out spaces spaced out. Some instructors live stream their classes for people to follow along with at home.

Some people attend classes with minimum impact like Mature Muscles and some people start their week taking no prisoners with Extreme Interval Step at 5:15 a.m. on Monday. And there is everything in between. You’ll see old people, children, teens, adults of all ages. Some older kids attend classes with their parents. Married couples work out together. You’ll hear English and Spanish spoken. And the ethnic groups represented in my city are found here.

I don’t know or care about who people voted for or the news they watch or if they carry an iPhone or android. We’re here to improve ourselves physically and emotionally because there is definitely a mental aspect to pushing yourself toward goals.

People are kind; you’ll soon the names of many people in your classes. The instructors are encouraging and approachable. They take pleasure in camaraderie and success. The support staff are friendly and helpful. It’s a single-minded place focused on health.

You can see my attraction.

No man does it all by himself”

Everyone has to assess the comfort of risk they are willing to take. Some people were not comfortable with the Y and chose not to attend. Others came just the same, assessing the benefits to outweigh the risks. Excuse me if this sounds flippant but my risk management was based on math. The CDC reports that COVID survival rates are in my favor. For my age group the survival rate is 99.5%. I have few to no comorbidities.

Shut down for about three months, the Y reopened in June with safety and distancing protocols in place. I wasn’t the first person in the door, a slip up I regret, but I was ready and willing. During the lockdown I had tuned into streamed Body Pump classes to stay in touch and maintain some muscle tone. There was something homey about Pump from the instructor’s basement with her dog and occasional child.

I was so pleased to see everyone on that first day back: Karen, Dan, Tom, Kari, Ruby, Javi, Wayne, and others. It was like a reunion you wanted to attend! Tom and Dan pretending to fight: music to my ears!

Though I previously rolled with the shutdowns, when fall came and outdoor gatherings ceased, the social losses were starting to get to me. I was struggling with it. The classes I attended kept me social and sane and physically fit. It was a life line to normalcy. I never looked more forward to exercising and increased the number of classes I attended.

To those who I knew before and those I have met since, to those who join me in pursuit of health every week, you’ll never know how much your presence was a mitigator of my isolation, a balm to my well being. Cheers to antioxidants and endorphins and sweat and growing stronger!

Next up: How Sugar-Free Mochas and Maria’s Beef Stew Saved My Husband’s Life Last Year


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