Fit to Be Tried
This year, give your annual resolution to shape up a chance by choosing an exercise regimen that's fun. The options are endless- from Pilates and tai chi to spinning and belly dancing.
Fit To Be Tried
We all feel flabby after the holidays, but our resolutions to exercise are soon forgotten. This year, improve your chances of getting back in shape by having a little fun during your workout
By Ann J. Loftin • Photographs by Michael Polito
Like many people, I have an extra closet at home. It’s my exercise machine. I’ve seen these handy contraptions used as blanket chests, tie racks, skirt hangers, and towel dispensers. When new, I’ve even seen them used for exercise. But let’s get real: minus the novelty factor, if there’s no one around to force you, why on earth would you climb aboard?
The Amish do not become overweight, as the New York Times recently reported, because they’re always engaged in manual labor. Evidently mindful of the average pagan’s need for comparable discipline, a recent issue of Men’s Fitness advises us to “fill a wheelbarrow with 10 pounds of sand. Push the wheelbarrow the length of your yard, and then pull it back to where you started. Repeat twice. Increase the weight when the exercise gets too easy.”
I’m sorry, but if you need punishment, go do your income taxes. A far sounder approach to exercise is to follow the pleasure principle. You’ll keep doing something you love, while everything “good for you” will eventually drop into that Sisyphean wheelbarrow — or turn into storage space.
The essential ingredient of a lasting fitness regime is peer pressure, or (for the less competitive personality) peer bonding. Kim Baumann, 45, membership director of Allsport in Fishkill, Dutchess County, says that reluctantly aging baby boomers like to stick together. “Our group activities are always full,” she says, “and we have a waiting list to get into certain classes, like cycling.”
Cycling, also known as “spinning” (a brand name coined by Schwinn for its exercise bikes and certification program), refers to the brand of exercise in which a roomful of people pedals furiously on stationary racing bicycles. They are accompanied by loud music and still-louder exhortations from an instructor. “People have been doing cycling for nine, 10 years,” says Baumann, “and it’s still extremely popular. It’s an extreme workout. You’d never do it on your own.”
Jack Slockbower, group fitness coordinator for the Mid-Hudson Athletic Club in Kingston and a certified spinning instructor, says spinning may look simple, but it’s actually rather complicated. “You have to match the RPMs to the music’s beats per minute,” he says. “It’s all about breathing, tempo, cadence. You have to know how to tweak the intensity, because your nervous system adapts so quickly. You have to keep challenging it.”
Slockbower’s rapid-fire enthusiasm on the subject of fitness is a thing of wonder. “Modern conveniences have ruined our bodies,” says the former actor. “The trends are taking us back to the holistic ways bodies need to move. The more you use your body, the longer you keep it. I tell people, ‘Ponce de Leon wasn’t looking for the Fountain of Youth. He was looking for a weight room.’”
Among Slockbower’s innovations is a new class called Functional Fun Boot Camp, which consists of field and ladder drills on the club’s indoor soccer field. “It’s hard, but fun,” he says. “When you’ve got people on a team, laughing together, an hour flies by.” Another popular class, Abs and Jabs (taught by a former Vietnam sergeant), attracts both men and women, young and old. “There’s one regular in his 80s,” says Slockbower.
Karen Parrinello, co-owner and manager (with her husband, Joe) of the Millbrook Training Center and Spa in Dutchess County, primarily caters to women age 40 and up.
“We’re not about hard bodies and muscle heads,” says Parrinello, who has a degree in commercial recreation administration from Texas A&M. “Throwing weights and grunting, we discourage that here. Anyone can walk into our center.”
Millbrook’s swimming pool is reserved for adult lap swimmers and aqua exercisers. “We get a lot of seniors with arthritis,” says Parrinello. “When they move their joints in the water, they feel immediate relief.” The center offers more than 50 classes a week, because unlike exercise machines, classes are “a great motivator,” adds Parrinello, who’s happy to see that “the Jane Fonda era” of fancy-footwork aerobics is long gone. “Group participation decreased by 50 percent in that decade. Instructors ran away with the ball.
We do low-impact now, and my instructors are taught to teach to all levels.” Classes include hip-hop for adults, kickboxing, body bar, and the ever-popular (go figure) Irish step-dancing.
According to Parrinello, “The biggest change in fitness today is that we’re catering to an older population as an industry.” Slockbower likewise says his niche market is women around age 50. “I want to make them feel as comfortable as possible, find out if they have bone or joint problems,” he says. Many of the new ways of exercising, such as “gliding” (where you use Frisbees under your hands and feet to take stress off the joints when doing push-ups and other repetitive exercises), reflect the aging of the boomer population.
Allsport’s Baumann agrees. “Exercise used to be very high-impact, high-energy,” she says. “When this club opened 26 years ago it was for gym rats, mostly men. You’d never find everyday people. Today, people want low-impact exercise — yoga, tai chi, Pilates.”
Beyond the belly
One currently popular form of exercise, at least for women, is 20,000 years old: belly dancing. Popularized on MTV by Latin pop singer Shakira (among others), belly dancing yields both physical and emotional benefits. Sarah Bell, one of the Hudson Valley’s most experienced teachers, says she’s always trying to dispel the myth that belly dancing is a sexual come-on. “Belly dancing is a celebration of Mother Earth,” she says. “It’s about giving blessings and sharing life stories.”
Belly dancing is also something of a misnomer, in that you’re not just wiggling the fat on your tummy. Far from it — dancers learn to isolate different muscle groups, doing shoulder circles, “snake arms” and hand movements, hip and rib slides, all the while toning stomach muscles and burning something on the order of 300 calories an hour during an intense workout.
But unlike those aerobic dance classes, where everyone else seems to know where to move next, belly dancing isn’t competitive; it’s as much about self-expression and self-confidence as it is about technique. Bell has been known to make up humorous anecdotes to give her students confidence; she’ll demonstrate how to strut like Sophia Loren, saying in an Italian accent, “I spit on you!”
Admitting that belly dancing got her through two divorces, Bell believes that it “allows women to claim their space in the world.” Speaking of space, Bell recalls that one of her best students danced while weighing in at 300 pounds. “Young men would look at her and admire her,” says Bell. “She was magnificent.”
Charlene Roberts teaches belly dancing at Ulster County Community College and Marbletown Multi-Arts, both in Stone Ridge, and at Woodstock’s Mountain View Studio. Along with former students, she also performs around the Hudson Valley as part of the Twisted Tassels Tribal Troupe. “Everyone teaches differently,” she says, so she encourages students to go to different teachers. Roberts’ specialty, American Tribal Style, focuses on improvisation and isolation techniques, as opposed to the clichéd cabaret style, which is more choreographed. “Americans have created a new style of belly dancing” that traces back to a late-1970s San Francisco troupe called Fat Chance Belly Dance, she says. “A lot of the belly dancing moves are expanding into modern-style dancing, in styles such as hip-hop.”
It’s a stretch
Most clubs in the Valley offer classes in Pilates, which utilizes a combination of stretching and resistance techniques. Barry Chait, who opened the Bare Fitness Club in Middletown two years ago (after a career as the conditioning coach of the New York Jets) and is certified to teach Pilates, is a big believer in the power of stretching. Anyone who hires him for personal training will undergo “manual stretching,” meaning Chait will push and pull your limbs into eventual submission. Chait, who has a master’s degree in sports and fitness management, is always on the lookout for the next fun thing. For a while, he had an instructor who taught African drumming — and if you don’t think that sounds like exercise, says Chait, “you try beating a drum for 45 minutes and see how your arms feel.”
Although it has reportedly been practiced by people in China since it was developed by a Taoist monk in the 13th century, tai chi has only gained popularity here in recent decades. A slow-moving, meditative martial art that promotes relaxation, balance, and the freeing of chi (literally, breath; figuratively, energy or life spirit) through the body, tai chi involves the employment of 24 motions in a specific order. It may look soft, slow, and flowing, yet its movements must be executed precisely.
Qi (or chi) gong is a related but less systematized approach involving hundreds of individual exercises that can be mixed and matched. These individual movements bear poetic names like “The Unicorn Turns Its Head to Look at the Moon” and “The Weeping Willow Shivers in the Early Morning Dew.” They are sometimes performed in water; for example, the Spa at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, Ulster County, offers aqua exercise using qi gong techniques.
A number of clubs and private teachers in the Valley offer classes in tai chi and its related disciplines, which, in addition to being great stress reducers, are said to offer relief from constipation, back and joint pain, and high blood pressure. Among them are martial arts master Fei Lung, at Hudson Valley Martial Arts in Cold Spring, Putnam County, and certified instructor (and tai chi gold medalist) Jill Basso, the founder of Hudson Valley Tai Chi Chuan, who instructs in both Hudson and Chatham, Columbia County.
Ron Paglia, a trainer at Allsport in Fishkill, says hiring a personal trainer can mean the difference between an exercise program that gets results and one that never leaves home. “Over the course of a year, fewer than one percent of people sustain an exercise regime at home,” he says. “And even if you get to the gym, it’s too easy to say, ‘I just don’t feel like doing the abdominals tonight.’”
When Paglia did a local call-in radio program, Fit for Life, his most consistent caller was the irate buyer of a home exercise machine that hadn’t lived up to its promise. “A trainer guarantees you’ll have an organized workout for all parts of the body each and every time,” he says. The cost ranges from $30 to $50 a session.
Fresh air fun
Of course, the Valley abounds in outdoor winter activities, not all of them high-impact. The Adirondack Mountain Club has roughly 30,000 members who not only climb mountains but frequent the region’s historic properties, such as the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, which welcome walkers free of charge.
An Ulster County group called Fats in the Cats may be just the thing for people who don’t like their bicycles stationary. Russell Thorpe, its membership coordinator, says the club has about 70 active members ranging in age from teenagers to 60-somethings. (“Fats” refers to the fat tires on mountain bikes; “Cats” to the Catskills.) They ride on state land in the Catskills and Bluestone Wild Forest (also known as Jockey Hill) near Kingston. While the number of participants drops off in winter, some people continue to ride, attaching studded tires for traction in snow. Others meet to scout out trails or go snowshoeing and cross-country skiing together.
People drawn to the trend of “extreme” sports will find plenty of company in the region. Albany’s Indoor Rock Gym offers rock climbing, caving, and outdoor-skills training. High Angle Adventures and Mountain Skills Climbing School, both in New Paltz, teach rock and ice climbing in the Shawangunks. Sundance Academy of Survival in Phoenicia, also in Ulster County, gives instruction in rappelling and other wilderness skills.
The truly intrepid can top off a climb with ironing. According to the Extreme Ironing Bureau, this household chore combines the danger and excitement of an extreme sport “with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.”
And if none of the above appeals, here’s a foolproof fitness plan: acquire a large, boisterous puppy. Everything else will fall into place.