To Your Good Health

A new YMCA can mean a fresh beginning for everyone

By Dana Sachs

Aileen Sutton

Job: Healthy Living Director at the Express Y of the YMCA of Southeastern North Carolina

First moved to Wilmington: Six years ago

Favorite spots:


Home Depot*

*She and her husband are building a house all by themselves.

What does that title mean, “Healthy Living Director”?

I’m responsible for coordinating our health and wellness programs both within the YMCA’s four walls as well as out in the community. It’s really just trying to connect all of the things we do here as a gym to create health and wellness opportunities for all. So, trying to engage partners in the community — like the senior center — to expand what we do beyond just a gym.

I was about to ask how you differentiate the Y from a gym.

Of course we do gymlike things. Classes, and personal training and cardio equipment. But in all of our efforts we’re really intentional about creating an atmosphere that celebrates our three tenets: healthy living, social responsibility, and youth development.

So you’re opening your new facility, the Nir Family Y, very soon. Can you tell me what we can expect?

Yes, we’re shooting (to open at) the end of this year or early 2019. Everything’s going to be bigger and better than what we have now. Really awesome big spaces for our child care program. Two racquetball courts, which Wilmington needs. Five locker rooms — women’s and men’s, boys’ and girls’ youth locker rooms — so you’re not having to contend for space with a bunch of 10-year-olds on the swim team — and then a big family locker room space with individual stalls, so a dad can go in with his daughter and get changed and shower up and go to the pool. And we’ll have a dedicated youth wing. A teaching kitchen. And the upstairs will be all the health and wellness space. Our studio spaces are larger. More cardio equipment. And a dedicated small-group personal training space with all the bells and whistles.

Which part do you get most excited about?

My brain is geared toward programming. (For example), the teaching kitchen. Let’s do basic cooking classes for teens, who need to learn how to cook rice. Because it’s a life skill.

As a member of the Y, I love seeing the range of physical abilities here, from people who could compete in Ironman competitions to people in wheelchairs, and everyone’s pushing to their own limits.

It’s really cool. One of our wellness coaches is a big champion of our Physability Program, which (is geared toward) members who need additional assistance during their workouts, (like with) getting in and out of a machine. And he’s gone full-in for research on an adaptive rowing program. At the new Y, our cycle studio is going to become a cycle rowing studio. We’ll be able to do adaptive rowing.

Why is adaptive rowing so helpful to people with limited physical abilities?

You think about the exercise options for somebody in a wheelchair. We have hand bikes. There might be a seated elliptical. So, (a rowing machine would give) an individual a completely different muscle set to use. It (requires) a lot more core engagement. And the group class atmosphere has an added benefit. If I can have a fleet of eight rowers of all abilities engage in that class, that’s going to be really cool.

You’d have people in wheelchairs taking a class with people who aren’t in wheelchairs.

Yeah. And we already do that in the
cycle studio.

I notice the Y runs a lot of “Challenge” programs to motivate people.

Some people are really internally motivated. Kudos to the folks who can get up at 6 a.m. and make it here five days a week. But there’s a whole bulk of the population (who) need that extra incentive. Is it, “I’m going to walk a mile a day for the next 30 days and earn a T-shirt”? That can be a great incentive.

What do you say to people when they’re discouraged?

I say, “Getting here is 90 percent of the battle.” The fact that they’re standing here talking to me about how they’re discouraged, they’re already 90 percent of the way there.

And what discourages people?

When we meet folks and give tours, we try to get people to answer the question, “What are you looking for in a facility like the Y?” And it’s interesting. When people do leave, they say things like, “Well, I don’t have the time.” You just asked me about the pep talk. Well, it’s “Let’s make a plan. Let’s make smart goals. You know you’re not going to become a strong man in two days, so let’s scale it back and maybe just plan to make these two classes this week.” So we really try to help folks with setting smart goals and then just making the commitment to be here.

Sometimes, too, people can feel intimidated by the prospect of exercising.

Yeah. Nervous. Like, “I don’t know how to use that piece of equipment.” Or, “I don’t want to go to a class and be the only person that hasn’t exercised in five years.” If I can get someone here, they’ll realize that this is a really safe space to — initially — not know what you’re doing. You’re not the only one. So come on in. We’ll show you.

What kind of exercise do you like?

Small group training. And I do a lot of yoga. I love swimming, and playing any kind of sports. Lifting heavy things. I find that enjoyable.

What kind of exercise do you dislike?

I’m not really a fan of running. I run when chased. Or when there’s a ball involved.

Can you describe some people who made that transition to feeling comfortable at the Y?

We had some staff join our Team Weight Loss Challenge, a 10-week challenge with small groups, weekly weigh-ins, prizes. It was cool to see staff who might be here three days a week working but had never touched the wellness floor, and they were out there getting it done, going to classes, trying new things.

I’m going to give you a superpower to change just one thing and, as a result, you will make people healthier. What’s your superpower?

The superpower of “follow through.” If someone made the decision to put a class on their calendar, I’m going to be the one to transport them there at that moment. And (they’ll be) automatically clothed in the proper attire. With a water bottle. And hydrated.

Dana Sachs’s latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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