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Best place to work out: Downtown YMCA

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John Cardone may be getting a workout just by sitting down.

Pushed against Cardone's executive office desk in the Downtown branch of the YMCA is a chair made from a stability ball nestled in a plastic base.

Sure, the chair has a back. But it also has wheels.

"So I don't fall asleep," Cardone jokes.

But the Y, voted best place to work out by CP readers, is just about the only city office where snoozing would seem impossible.

From the basement pool, visible beneath the walkway that leads into the building, to fourth-floor rooms filled with exercise machines, free weights and stationary bicycles, it is a place where everyone seems in constant motion.

Lon Sonick, of the North Hills, has been coming here since "the early '70s," he says. "I've seen all the other ones" -- the other facilities he could have chosen for today's trip to the free-weights room. At the Y, he says, "The facilities are the best for weight training."

It doesn't hurt that the Y's Downtown branch has just finished renovating this free-weights facility and purchased $250,000 worth of other exercise equipment over the past two years. But "the big thing is the camaraderie," Sonick says. "You become friends with guys who are in the same profession as you. It becomes a lifestyle."

Plus, of course, "It's a nice short jaunt" from the nearby offices of Industrial Appraisal, where he is vice president of information technology.

Sheila Bluemling, of Marshall Township, takes a break from the Cybex Assisted Chin-up machine to consider why the Y qualifies as tops in town. As it turns out, she values it for almost the opposite reason: "It's for people who need to get done what they want to get down at lunch," without all that business networking, she says.

Considering what Bluemling does for a living -- investigating attorneys for the state Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel -- some of those working out beside her Downtown may raise no objection.

Bluemling has used the Y for five years now -- to take spinning classes, work the weight machines and have a base for outside runs.

"You don't have a big staff turnover" at the Y, she says. "It's clean and they have a lot to offer" -- including affordable memberships that allow the use of many other Y's around the country.

The Downtown Y employs the commercial FitLinxx system, which connects its 3,000 members to their own customized fitness program across their workout sessions -- even as they travel. Fifteen-year Y workout veteran Ken Knapp of Pine Township marvels at the system as he sits at another weight machine on the Cybex circuit.

"It records all my weights and settings and tells me what positions to put things in," says Knapp, who has been coming here for 15 years to engage in everything from racquetball to scuba certification, often on his lunch hours at Mellon Financial. FitLinxx also keeps track of what Knapp has accomplished that afternoon.

But the Y is not just for fitness veterans, John Cardone says.

"The majority of people who walk through our doors are new exercisers," he says. "Step one is getting them here. Once they're here, we have a way of staying engaged with them."

Each beginner gets an appointment with a fitness instructor, who helps him or her develop a workout program and hook up with FitLinxx. And the staff stays in touch with members about the progress of their plans.

"You can have as many appointments with an instructor as you need," Cardone says -- and join a class the moment you join the Y, even if the lessons have been underway for weeks.

"When people walk through our door," he concludes, "we can pretty much match what people want, from an elite athlete to a grandmother just trying to lift her grandkids."

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