The Roxbury YMCA emphasizes that community health involves body positivity, not just personal fitness

“I like this particular Y because it helps a certain demographic that doesn’t necessarily get the most help or can really focus on their health.”

The Roxbury YMCA on Martin Luther King Boulevard is more than just a gym. It is home to a diverse community of people dedicated to supporting fitness goals through the lens of body positivity.

A grab-and-go food and snack case is set up on the first floor of the Roxbury Y near the front entrance. In the gym, a group of elementary school boys play basketball together. They high-five each other and playfully talk trash to each other as they shoot from the three-point line. One floor up, a woman squats in the free weights room, swaying to her music between sets.

In 1851, the first American YMCA was established in Boston, Massachusetts, and by 1854 there were 397 YMCAs in seven nations with a total of 30,369 members. The YMCA is the largest nonprofit community service organization in the United States, serving more than 17 million people. Provides social services and fitness programs aimed at serving the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of its patrons. The Y, in most neighborhoods across the country, offers a place of community for those who need it most.

Head coach Pedro Garcia has been with the Roxbury Y for three years. He creates and facilitates group trainings and one-on-one private sessions. As a Boston native, Garcia understands the importance of giving back to the community that raised him.

Photo: Ziyu Peng

“I like this particular Y because it’s in town. It’s to help a certain demographic that I don’t necessarily find always gets the most help or is really focused on their health,” Garcia said. “The demographics are very Hispanic, black and lower income. I love the idea that I can help these people who are similar to me with their health, stress and confidence.

The Scope spoke with Garcia about the importance of incorporating body positivity into fitness as a way to build community. What follows is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

What makes working at the Roxbury Y fulfilling for you?

Working as a personal trainer is my passion. I like to help people. I love to build them up physically, emotionally and spiritually. That’s what I’m in it for, more than the physical part. I want to be able to help people and their mentality. I find that working out is a stress reliever and many people deal with a lot of stress.

How do you define body positivity?

I guess you’re comfortable in your own skin, which is hard these days with social media and comparing yourself to people who may not be realistic. I think body image can be mentally exhausting. Many people are obsessed with their body image. Looking in the mirror can cause some insecurities and self-esteem issues depending on where they are physically. I think positive body image is extremely important just for your own mentality and your confidence. If you look in the mirror and like what you see, you will grow taller, walk taller with more poise and better posture. Something I’m working on here is trying to improve people’s body image, which can take time. I like to think I can give people realistic goals and make them feel good about their bodies.

Has this definition changed over time?

I don’t think it’s consistent, there are ups and downs for everyone. I think body image is something we’re not always going to be very happy about. We won’t be perfect. I find that right now I’m probably in the best shape I’ve ever been. And even now I think, “Oh, I can still be better there, there, there, there, there.” I always pick things that I think I can improve on. I think it’s like a roller coaster. Some days you feel great and love the way you look, and some days you feel like crap. I think the key would be not to ride up and down, but to stay mentally consistent and balanced.

Is there a specific moment when you first learned about body positivism?

I was a younger child. I’m still small, but when I was younger I was really skinny and scrawny and one of the smaller kids in my class. I think I started there with my own body image struggles. Once I knew I wanted to be bigger and stronger and I was introduced to the gym, and then I was also introduced to positive body image. After going through that transformation and that journey, I thought, “Oh, I did it for myself. I can do it for other people. I can do it for other people and be an example to you of how your body image can improve.”

Equipment at the Roxbury YMCA (Photo: Ziyu Peng)

When you’re out of classes here, do you also do one-on-one sessions with people? How does group size change the way you approach body positivity in your work?

Both! Group workouts create a general workout for the general population, so I don’t necessarily focus on each of their specific goals. Everyone comes to me with goals, whether they want to strengthen their upper or lower body. I tell people if they want really specific guidance on improving their body image to meet with me one on one so I can really focus and hone in on what they want to achieve. That way, I can determine what is holding them back from doing so right now and what obstacles we need to maneuver around to achieve their goals.

How do you go about setting goals?

I like to set goals in steps. I like to set small goals for myself every day. And once you add those days together, you will eventually achieve your greater goal. With fitness, I describe goals as pillars. Your exercise is one pillar. Your physical activity is another pillar. Your diet is one third. And then your rest and recovery is your fourth. I would suggest incremental improvement in these four areas every day. I think setting goals means taking small steps at a time so you don’t get discouraged.

What is the community like here at the Y for people looking for guidance on their health and body positivity?

I think the classes are huge because they bring a lot of people together who might find it hard to get a personal trainer. Maybe they’re shy, they’re new to all this, so they might be a little scared to approach someone and ask for help. I find the classes are good because you can just turn up and it’s not a lot of pressure. You are among your own kind and you can kind of just follow what I instruct you to do. And that builds community. In these classes people show up every week and people connect. They laugh and everyone pushes each other. It’s great to be a community leader and have people really like what you’re doing. I take this pretty seriously and I’m grateful that I can help people and they appreciate what I do.

How do you suggest we bring more body positivity to fitness and training, especially for young people?

I think talking to the kids, just like a person like me talking to the kids and telling them about my journey and the things they can expect as they grow up, changes in their body that they’re going to go through. It’s important to give young people some perspective on body image.

Pedro Garcia can be found on Instagram @trainer_.

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