Wearing bright-pink boxing gloves, Denise Gunderson laughs as she punches the padded mitts on Shawn Reich’s raised hands.

“Ten seconds more,” Reich says. And she quickly changes fists and keeps punching.

Gunderson, 38, of Grand Forks, is enrolled in “Y Med Fit,” a medical fitness program offered by the Altru Family YMCA. She comes to the Y three days a week for workouts that last from 30 to 45 minutes.

“I love it,” she said. “I feel my confidence building, and I can see different things in me, like how I’ve gotten stronger and how I look. People say, ‘Oh, you look good.’ ”

Gunderson was born with spina bifida, a defect evidenced by malformation of the spinal column, which causes paralysis from the waist down. She uses a wheelchair, but that hasn’t stopped her from getting the exercise she needs to improve her health and increase strength.

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About sparring with Reich, she said, “It helps me work on my core (strength), to hold myself upright.”

“I love trying new things, like boxing. That’s fun, that’s a stress-reliever,” she said.

In addition to physical benefits, regular exercise contributes to her positive attitude and outlook on life, she said. “When you can see the progress you’ve made, it helps with the mental (health) too.”

“When I look at Denise, I don’t see a wheelchair,” Reich said. “I see Denise, someone who needs extra guidance on machines.”



Denise Gunderson, 38, works out with Shawn Reich, 
a medical fitness specialist at the Grand Forks YMCA. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald
Denise Gunderson, 38, works out with Shawn Reich, a medical fitness specialist at the Grand Forks YMCA. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald

No limits

The Y Med Fit program is a reflection of the facility’s mission of providing services to everyone in the community, including those with special needs, said Patti McEnroe, membership and marketing director.

“We want to provide programs and services for people of all ages and all levels of fitness ability,” McEnroe said. “We want everyone who comes in our door to be successful at something.”

The new Med Fit program is aimed at helping people who’ve completed physical therapy and want to progress in their recovery and continue to improve after receiving treatment for things such as injury, heart attack or stroke.

“It’s post-therapy help,” said McEnroe.

Adam Sorum, healthy living director, said Med Fit “is for people who can’t physically or mentally exercise alone. The one-on-one mentoring is free. They get monitoring all the time, so that oversight is there.”

Sorum and Reich are medical fitness specialists who joined the YMCA last year, after Altru closed its fitness center at the former rehab hospital building on South Columbia Road. Sorum had worked there for 13 years, and Reich, for six. Reich holds a master’s degree in kinesiology.

Denise Gunderson, 38, works out at the Grand Forks YMCA with trainer Shawn Reich. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald
Denise Gunderson, 38, works out at the Grand Forks YMCA with trainer Shawn Reich. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald

“The Y is a very friendly, inviting environment,” Reich said, “especially for beginners who don’t know where to start, because we have so much experience.”

He and Sorum are trained and certified to work with people who have health challenges, such as diabetes, cancer, arthritis, pulmonary disease and osteoporosis, or who are recovering from injury, stroke or heart attack.

They are increasing the safe and effective fitness programming for people with physical limitations, but “many people don’t realize that we have this equipment and this type of program,” Sorum said.

Five pieces of specialized equipment from the Altru rehab site were relocated to the YMCA, Sorum said, and more equipment has been added, such as “arm bikes,” Lat Pulls and machines, like the cable column, with parts that adjust to meet the needs of the user.

Ample space around each piece of equipment allows easy access for people with walkers or in wheelchairs.

“Someone in a wheelchair can roll up to strength equipment, like, a Nautilus chest press, and swing the seat away,” McEnroe said.

Exercise regimens can be modified for people with special needs, such exercising while seated, or using a chair for balance and support. The chair can be used as much or as little as needed, McEnroe said. “It’s always there, so you have a little more confidence.”

“There’s actually quite a variety of intensity options for any exercise. Standing movements can be low intensity; seated movements can be high intensity,” she said. “But we don’t push people to do more than they’re comfortable with.”

Raised cots permit people to exercise while lying down, but not on a mat on the floor.

A chair lift allows access to the pool for people with mobility issues, Sorum said.

Denise Gunderson, 38,  smiles as she punches a fist wrapped in a boxing glove into the air at the Grand Forks YMCA. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald
Denise Gunderson, 38, smiles as she punches a fist wrapped in a boxing glove into the air at the Grand Forks YMCA. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald

‘Happy and cheerful’

These days, more people are coming into the facility in wheelchairs and with walkers and canes, McEnroe said. “They come in happy and cheerful. It’s really fun to have such a variety; it’s interesting and amazing to see such positivity.”

Kirk Sand is one of them.

He relies on a walker, he said, due to a disability in his leg. Doctors here and at Mayo Clinic have been unable to diagnose the problem, which began three years ago when he fell a couple times within about 30 minutes, said Sand, 73, of Grand Forks.

He exercises with a leg press, chest press, pull weights, and equipment that raises his legs, he said.

The Y Med Fit is “a good program,” Sand said. Those who don’t know about it “are missing a good workout -- and good people here, there’s all kinds of help.”

Gunderson encourages anyone who needs more information or is on the fence about the program to learn more about it.

“Call the YMCA and see what they can offer,” she said. “If you feel you can’t afford it, they do offer scholarships.”

Reich and other employees are hoping to dispel what they believe are common misconceptions about the YMCA.

“We want people to know that the Y is not just a gym where everyone is healthy and fit,” said Reich. “We’re here to serve everyone, to accommodate everyone we can. We have the staff, experience and equipment to do that.”