I’m at the YMCA for my weekly strength training class. After claiming my usual spot on the gym floor, I gather my equipment (three sets of weights, stretchy band, mat). The music’s pulsing and I stand silently, waiting for the class to start.

Most Fridays, I sweat through this strength class with the same group of women. But, other than the instructor, I didn’t know the name of a single one of them. And I know I’m not the only one who’s clueless in the name department.

Time to take a risk. I turn to the woman who always sets up her mat right behind me.

“Hi, what’s your name?”

She smiles. “Paula.”

“Hi, Paula. I’ve gone to the Y for years. But I don’t know anyone. So, I’ve decided to learn names. You’re my first!”  

For me, fitness is a dish served best with friends. I like to work out in a group to stay energized and motivated. But how do you turn a gym full of strangers into friends? You learn their names. That’s what we teach our kids. But I don’t do it myself—especially not at the gym. Maybe I’m too self-conscious, or too shy, or convinced I’ll just forget their names even if I ask. I’ve always had a hard time remembering names.  

But I know that reaching out is worth the effort. Numerous studies show that friends help us lead longer, happier, healthier lives. And it’s easier to make friends with people you see frequently while enjoying a common interest. While building our bods at the gym, why not build some friendships as well?

“You know, this is embarrassing,” I say, “but I don’t know your name.”

And so began my name-quest. Each week, I greet Paula in my Friday class, and we chat. So far it’s just pleasantries, but it’s a start. The next challenge is the Saturday morning YMCA yoga class. That’s a tough one. I always dash to yoga at the last minute. Everyone is already sitting or lying down quietly. Many have their eyes closed. Silence—bummer.

But I have a plan. One morning, I arrive 10 minutes early. People are setting up their mats and by some miracle, they are already chatting. I overhear a conversation. One yoga regular says, “I’d love to sing with a group one day.”

Bingo! “I sing with a group,” I say—bravely butting into the conversation. “It’s a drop-in singing group that meets in a downtown bar.”

“That sounds amazing,” she says. “But I don’t think I’d go by myself.”

“You should try it. I’ll go with you,” I say. We exchange names and emails. Her name is Christine.

So Christine and I meet at the bar to sing with a multi-age group of music lovers. In 3-part-harmony, we all croon “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele. Christine is thrilled. Soon, we’re not only yoga buds, but also singing buds. And now, we’re also gardening buds. Before a recent yoga class, the conversation turned to backyard veggie growing. Christine promised to bring me garlic buds to plant.  

After this success story, I’m convinced that learning names builds friendships. But the more names I learn, the more I realize I need a strategy to remember them. I decide to use an old-fashioned name-learning memory trick. Here’s how it works: When I meet someone, I use a visual image to lock their name in my memory vault. Take Robbie—a yoga class regular. I picture her robbing my house in a mask, creating a visual to remind me of the name; Robbie becomes robbery. Hokey? Maybe, but it works. Besides, there’s nothing more embarrassing for me than forgetting names.

Which brings me to my most daunting challenge—learning the names of the women I’ve seen at the YMCA classes for over 10 years. Seen. Greeted. But not by name. I’ve forgotten their names. Or never learned them in the first place.

So, while running out the door at the Y, I run into one of those “oldie but goldie” acquaintances. “You know, this is embarrassing,” I say, “but I don’t know your name.”

“Nadine,” she says and smiles. “I don’t remember yours either.”

Soon we’re chatting about our kids and our work. Our first conversation ever—in all these years—started with a name. Or more precisely, a bold confession that we didn’t know each other’s name.  

So, now several months have passed since launching my YMCA name-quest. Last week at the yoga class, Robbie mistakenly called me Judy. We laughed. Christine and I chat regularly about yoga and singing and now art. I’ve learned that Christine is an artist. (I’m still waiting for those garlic buds.)

As for Paula from my weekly YMCA strength class? Now, we always greet each other by name. And last week, she kindly put my free weights away in the storage room after class. Honestly, I don’t know if Paula and I will ever hang out together outside of our regular spots on the gym floor. But here’s what I do know: when I exercise beside someone I can greet by name and can talk with, I feel happier, more confident, and like I belong.  

That’s powerful stuff.