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Visit to Northtowns Y reveals mother of all WNY fitness centers

Retired speech therapist Lora Fletcher, of Williamsville, is among the interesting people Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon met at the Independent Health Family Branch YMCA. She's playing "pickle ball," a combination of ping pong, tennis and badminton. (Photos by John Hickey/Buffalo News)

By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor

I should have shaved.

That was the prevailing feeling I had last Sunday when I took my second spinning class at the Independent Health Family Branch YMCA in Williamsville.

I had no idea I would run into anyone I might know, or want to know.

First was the spinning instructor, Eleanor Payne, an assistant principal by day who knows my brother, Todd, and sister-in-law, Sheila.

Then it was Jim Dempsey, a fellow spinning enthusiast who overheard me talking with Payne and introduced himself as one of my relatives. His father was my Grandma Scanlon’s brother.

After spinning class, I hit the ellipticals and some of the exercise equipment, where I said hello to Maurie Materise, who I’ve seen around The Buffalo News office. He specializes in selling advertising to banks and other financial institutions.

Who knew I’d meet so many interesting people toward the tail end of a lazy weekend, while covered in two-day-old facial stubble?

The visit was part of my quest to determine by Jan. 31 what to do about my fitness club future in the wake of the Christmastime sale of the Buffalo Athletic Club coed gyms to LA Fitness. Read my previous blog posts about the search here and here, and my WNY Refresh story about choosing a gym here.

The guest tryouts last weekend at what many call the "Northtowns Y" underlined what YMCA Buffalo Niagara CEO Olin B. "Buddy" Campbell Jr. told my girlfriend, Karen, and I on New Year’s Day while he led us on a tour of the place: One of the blessings of the YMCA is the social connections you can make.

That should shed some light for folks like Mike Hilburger and other members of his former "Zipper Club," a group of guys who’ve undergone open heart surgery and worked out together for a decade or more at the Eastern Hills BAC, but have scattered in recent weeks as LA Fitness employees have told senior citizens the chain would no longer honor Medicare Advantage Plan discounts. (Read this weekend’s WNY Refresh story about that and other insurance discounts.)

"We socialize together about once a month," a dejected Hilburger told me earlier this month. "Everybody’s going to miss that."

Maybe not. Many of them ultimately may end up at the Northtowns Y.

Take if from Lora Fletcher, who left the BAC for the big gym early last year, when the Northtowns Y first opened, because she wanted more fitness options to deal with the aftermath of left knee surgery.

“I have made some really good friends here,” the retired Buffalo Public Schools speech therapist told me. “I’ve also seen some of my son’s friends who have little kids.”

For those in the market for a new fitness club, here’s what you want to know about the YMCA in general:

• Each YMCA focuses on fitness and wellness for the entire family, ranging from infants to seniors.

• The offerings go far beyond weights, weight machines and aerobic classes. Healthy cooking classes, comprehensive child care and health and wellness programs are among other options.

• The YMCA will waive the $75 join fee for any BAC member who signs up by Friday.

• Western New York has the added blessing of having two Jewish Community Centers – one in Amherst, the other in Buffalo – that offer a similar slate of activities. These clubs are offering $100 off an annual membership, two extra months free and four free personal training sessions for BAC members through Friday.

Here’s what you want to know about the two major YMCA branches in the region – the Northtowns Y, next door to Erie Community College North, and the Southtowns Y, at 1620 Southwestern Blvd., less than a mile from the LA Fitness (former BAC) Southtowns branch:

• They are the mother of all fitness centers in the region. The Northtowns Y is the largest, at 94,000 square feet, and the Southtowns a close second.

• Their buildings include full-sized basketball courts; multi-purpose rooms for cooking classes and other gatherings; two group fitness studios; large cardio and free weight spaces; sprawling child care sections; massage therapy; physical therapy offered by Buffalo Rehab Group; wading and lap pools, steam rooms and saunas, and a hot tub. There are even "family" locker rooms, which contain private, individual stalls big enough for mom or dad to help get their sons and daughters ready for swim lessons, and ready to go home, together.

• Both of these sites are relatively new, with new equipment and, because of their sheer size, plenty of elbow room, even on weekends.

Still, for some, this isn’t wellness Nirvana.

Teenagers can use the facilities, and it’s not uncommon for younger children to wander around looking for parents.

Seniors can have run of the clubs, and some group fitness classes, at times.

There’s no escaping the bustle, particularly on weekends. Those who prefer a quiet workout, alone, may feel overwhelmed here.

The cost for an individual membership also can be prohibative, at $50 a month for an individual membership. The cost falls into better line for seniors who have Medicare Advantage Plan discounts, as well as couples and those looking to join a fitness center as a family. Membership also includes a 12-week training introduction that would cost extra in almost all discount clubs in the region.

I loved belonging to the Oswego and Fulton YMCA branches when my now-college-age daughters were younger and I was married. I could drop them off at child care, hit the Cybex machines and weights, and we could all take a dip in the pool or hot tub afterward.

I also enjoyed my pair of workouts last weekend at the Northtowns Y.

The spinning classes were a bit clunkier than those at the BAC and LA Fitness, because you have to roll out the Keiser bikes onto a group fitness studio floor used for various classes. But bikes were available both last Saturday and Sunday, and that has not always been the case in January at the BAC. The teachers also compared to those in the other gyms – and it was clear that they were allowed to play their own music. Payne’s set list included tunes from Aerosmith, Creed and Tina Turner. She also asked spinning class participants to request music for future classes.

It also was nice to hop onto equipment after class in the second-floor cardio section. Many treadmills and ellipticals tout individual TVs and iPod ports, and all look out the multi-pane swath of glass that yields to a 600-space parking lot and the front grounds of ECC. Running on the banked, rubberized second-floor track that circles, from above, two full-sized basketball courts on the ground floor, also was a kick.

What child wouldn’t love the Alaskan Adventure Room, a two-plus story maze in the child-care section? And what parent wouldn’t appreciate the many windows in the cardio, free weight and other adult sections that look out onto the pools and Alaskan Adventure Room?

For those BAC coed members still feeling the sting of that chain’s sale to BAC – because change, after all, can be daunting – there also another thing for prospective members to keep in mind when it comes to the YMCA Buffalo Niagara.

"We’ve been around 162 years," Campbell said.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Coming Sunday at the Refresh Buffalo Blog: Scott Scanlon gets a feel for a smaller gym.


Twitter: @BNrefresh
This YMCA yoga class is one of dozens of classes, and a wide range of other programs, that take place each week at YMCA Buffalo Niagara branches across the region.
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About The Refresh Buffalo Blog

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered various topics in his quarter-century as a journalist in South Florida, Syracuse and Buffalo. He is aiming to pass along what he is learning these days about health, fitness, nutrition and family life.

@BNRefresh |