The Roxbury YMCA underscores that community health includes body positivity, not just personal fitness

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


Photo: Ziyu Peng

Ziyu Peng and Isabel Meyers

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.

On the first floor of the Roxbury Y, a crate of grab-and-go food and snacks is stationed near the front entrance. In the gym, a group of elementary school aged boys play basketball together. They hype each other up and playfully talk smack as they shoot from the three-point line. One floor up, a woman squats in the free weight room, swaying with her music in between sets. 

In 1851, the first U.S. YMCA was established in Boston, Massachusetts and by 1854, there were 397 YMCAs in seven nations totaling 30,369 members. The YMCA is the largest not-for-profit community service organization in the U.S., serving over 17 million people. It provides social services and fitness programs, aiming to serve the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of their patrons. The Y, in most neighborhoods across the country, offers a place of community for those who need it most.

Head trainer Pedro Garcia has worked at the Roxbury Y for three years. He creates and facilitates group training 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 the city. It is helping a certain demographic that I don’t necessarily find always gets the most help or is really focused on their health,” Garcia said. “The demographic is composed of a lot of Hispanics, Blacks and lower income people. I like the idea of me being able to assist these people that 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 to you?

Working as a personal trainer is a passion of mine. I love helping people. I love building them up physically, emotionally and spiritually. That’s what I’m in it for, more than just the physical part. I want to be able to help people and their mentality. I find that training is a stress reliever and a lot of people are dealing with a lot of stress. 

How do you define body positivity?

I guess being comfortable in your own skin, which is hard nowadays with social media and comparing yourself to people who may not be realistic. I think body image can be mentally fatiguing. A lot of people obsess over their body image a lot. Looking in the mirror can cause some insecurities and self-esteem issues depending on where they are physically. I think positive body image is super important just to your own mentality and your confidence. If you look in the mirror and you like what you see, you’re going to stand up taller, you’re going to walk taller with more poise and better posture. Something I work on here is trying to improve people’s body image, which can take time. I like to think I can instill people with realistic goals and make people feel good about their body.

Has this definition changed over time?

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

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

I was a smaller kid. I’m still small, but when I was younger, I was really skinny and scrawny and one of the smaller kids in my grade. I think I started there with my own battles with body image. Once I knew I wanted to be bigger and stronger and I was introduced to the gym, and that’s when I was also introduced to positive body image. Once I went 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 for you of how your body image can improve.” 

Equipment inside the Roxbury YMCA (Photo: Ziyu Peng)

When you leave classes here, do you also do individual sessions with people? How does the group size change how you approach body positivity in your work? 

Both! Group training is creating a general workout for a general population, so I’m not necessarily focusing on each one of their specific goals. Everyone comes to me with goals whether they want to strengthen their upper body or lower body. I tell people if they want really specific guidance to improve their body image to meet with me one-on-one so I can really focus and hone in on what they’re looking to achieve. That way, I can pinpoint what’s deterring them from that currently and what obstacles we have to maneuver to achieve their goals.

How do you go about goal setting?

I like to set goals by increments. I like to make small goals each and every day. And once you stack these days together, eventually you’ll reach your bigger goal. With fitness, I describe goals as pillars. Your exercise is one pillar. Your physical activity is another pillar. Your diet is a third. And then your rest and recovery are your fourth. I would suggest incrementally improving in those four areas day by day. I think goal setting is taking little steps at a time so you don’t get discouraged. 

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

I think the classes are huge because it brings a lot of people together that probably find it difficult to approach a personal trainer. Maybe they’re shy, they’re new to it all, so they might be a little scared to approach someone and ask for help. I find the classes are good because you can just show up and it’s not a lot of pressure. You’re among your peers and you can kind of just follow what I instruct you to do. And that builds a community. In those classes, people show up each week and people kind of bond. They have laughs and everyone pushes each other. It’s cool being a leader of a community and having people really liking what you’re doing. I take that pretty seriously, and I’m grateful that I’m able to help people and they appreciate what I’m doing.

 How do you suggest we bring more body positivity into fitness and training, specifically 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 things they can expect as they grow up, changes in their body that they will experience. It’s important that we give young people some perspective about body image.


Pedro Garcia can be found on Instagram @trainer_garcia5.