From pole dancing to kickboxing to functional exercise routines, there are numerous fun and creative ways to stay in shape.
Wearing shorts and a plain, hip-length tank top, Jenna Klauss was not dressed to seduce when she stepped out onto her family’s pirate ship-shaped deck during a summer party. After all, she was just planning to demonstrate her new workout routine for a collection of relatives, good friends and casual acquaintances. But when she started dancing sinuously around the long metal pole that formed the deck’s “mast,” the guests stopped conversing so they could give her their full attention. And when she pulled herself effortlessly to the top of the pole, spun around it a few times and performed a graceful backbend while hanging on by her knees, they broke into wild applause.
“I’d never considered learning how to pole dance, much less doing it to lose weight and get fit,” says Klauss who works in Oak Brook and took pole dancing lessons at Sheila Kelley’s S Factor’s Chicago studio. “But my uncle decided that, like every other ship, the deck had to have a mast. So he mounted a flagpole on the bow, and the idea just came into my head.”
While pole dancing as a fitness routine has gained enough of a following that studios hold competitions that draw dozens of entrants, it’s certainly not the only non-traditional fitness option that west suburbanites can choose when they get bored with that “stuck on a treadmill” feel of traditional workout options. Local gyms and park districts offer everything from Zumba dancing to classical ballet training for people who like to burn fat to the beat, as well as wrestling, kickboxing, and other martial arts-based workouts for people who’d rather pummel off their excess pounds.
“I think there is an overall trend for facilities to offer variety in their fitness programs,” notes Sue Omanson, community development manager at the Naperville Park District. “Patrons like mixing it up a little instead of sticking with the same old weights and aerobics day in and day out. Something like Zumba or Bollywood dancing is fun and energizing, but you can also get a great aerobic workout by doing it, so it’s fitness and entertainment combined.”
For Klauss, pole dancing not only strengthened her core and trimmed her midsection, it boosted her confidence and gave her an appreciation for the way her body could move and feel. “It’s not like the ‘flirty girl’ dance routines,” she advises. “It incorporates a little bit of yoga, some pilates and a lot of empowerment for women when they learn to accept and love their bodies even if they’re overweight or not fashionable. It’s about making women feel sexy and strong in the skin and shape they already have. And if you want to, you can advance to the point where the moves you’re doing require near-Olympics athletic ability.”
Other women gravitate to more earthbound forms of sensuous dancing, like belly dance and hula — both of which are offered at park districts and private gyms throughout the western suburbs. “I started belly dance workouts in September, and I love it,” says “Marilyn,” a new grandmother in her late 50s. “We do a lot of stretching, a lot of arm movements that really tone the muscles and a lot of core work, so I feel like I’m getting a good workout. Plus, no matter how bad shape you’re in, you can’t do these movements without feeling sexy.”
Like pole dancing, belly dance lets women of all ages and fitness levels tap into their inner feminine sensuality. “At first I was just looking for a workout that wouldn’t hurt my joints and wouldn’t be boring,” Marilyn explains. “But now I’m making myself a belly dance costume so I can surprise my husband by dancing for him on his birthday. That’s why I don’t want to reveal my name or where I live, because he doesn’t know that I’ve been doing this and I can’t wait to surprise him!”
“We have lots of women who do tap and belly dance for fitness and fun, and some of them would never set foot in a gym. The gym atmosphere is not for them,” says Susan Smentek, cultural arts program manager for the Elmhurst Park District. “However, our biggest increase in adult participants this fall has been in Adult Beginner Tap. Now, that’s a workout!”
Sometimes all it takes to jazz up a boring workout is to take it outside. The suburbs abound with trails like the Prairie Path and the Fox River Trail where people can get in
their daily run, walk or bike ride while feasting their eyes on sculpture gardens, historic downtown architecture or simply the splendors of nature. In winter, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District keeps 70 miles of trails groomed for cross country skiing, while Kane County forest preserves offer ungroomed trails for the more adventurous skier.
People can even do calisthenics and bodyweight-lifting outdoors. The Naperville Park District offers fitness station circuits at Commissioner Park, Meadow Glens Park and the Nike Sports Complex, says Omanson, adding, “In good weather it’s much more pleasant to exercise outside than in a sweaty weight room at a gym.”
Spaced 500 feet or so apart on half-mile paths, the stations provide simple equipment and directions that let users stretch, do arm-strength exercises and tone their core muscles.
Or people can approach exercise as a sport — even a sport they never plan to compete in. “Most of the people who take our Hits and Mitts boxing class don’t want to become boxers,” says Traci Wicks, marketing director for the Geneva Park District. “They just enjoy the striking and the footwork. It’s a very good workout that’s also a lot of fun.”
Kickboxing, wrestling and sports-style martial arts classes also draw fitness fans who want to combine exercise with combative moves and maybe some good-natured sparring with classmates.
Functional fitness — another trend gaining traction in the western suburbs — focuses on weightlifting moves that mimic real-life activities rather than just developing muscle strength. Equipment includes blocks of varying heights for step-ups, adult-sized monkey bars, kettlebells with handles shaped like grocery bag handles, weighted balls to throw and catch, and long straps dangling from walls with looped ends that let people do sit-ups, pushups and other calisthenics at different angles to change the body weight their muscles are moving.
While facilities with functional fitness gyms usually offer classes with programmed workouts, some people — like Geneva residents Mike and Kim Milano — prefer to just walk in and design their own routines, depending on what they feel like doing at the time.
“This place is great! It’s like an old-fashioned playground sized for adults,” Mike exclaims as he surveys the functional fitness room at the Geneva Park District’s Sunset Community Center. “I feel more creative just walking in here and doing something different every time. The key to sustaining a workout habit is to add more variety, and this place makes it easy to do that.”
Mike starts most of his functional fitness workouts with the TRX exercise straps. “I love this because it’s so simple, yet you can use it to do 120 different exercises that target different muscle groups,” he explains. “TRX activates the core muscles by making the body unstable. The more you minimize your contact with the ground, the more you build up your core and the stronger you become.”
Kim adds that she likes using the TRX straps because they make it easy for her to adjust her weight load from exercise to exercise. “I can do standing pushups from any angle just by moving my feet instead of doing bench presses and having to change the weights on the machine,” she notes. “I feel like a lot of weight benches are too big to fit me properly, but the straps can adjust to fit anyone in a few seconds.”
Eventually, both Milanos move to other equipment, such as the long, heavy ropes to whip up and down and the weighted leather balls that smack satisfyingly against the floor or a wall when thrown. “I like to pretend the ball is the head of whatever politician I’m angry at,” Mike quips as he slams a 20-lb ball into the floor.
“I like this kind of workout because I feel like I’ve accomplished something, but it doesn’t feel like work to me,” says Kim. “This is how kids play when they’re little.”
Don’t have the time or money to join a gym or buy even simple home exercise equipment? Anyone can build short, productive workouts into their schedules using things they’ve already got in their homes, advises personal trainer Josh Alegria of Montgomery, who coaches clients at XSport Fitness and Lifestyle Fitness gyms. “I do 15 minutes of high intensity exercise, switching activities every two or three minutes and keeping my heart rate up, and I burn more fat than my girlfriend burns on her six-mile run,” he asserts. “High intensity interval training is the new medically-based workout system that lets people maximize their improvement with the smallest time investment. If you can just take 15 minutes to alternate between jumping rope, running in place and going up and down stairs, then do that two or three times a day, it really adds up.”
While people looking for a fun way to get fit should make sure their chosen activities elevate their heart rate and offer some muscle resistance, they should also focus on activities they really enjoy rather than limiting themselves to the most intense workouts, adds Dr. Julio Gonzalez, a sports medicine physician in the DuPage Medical Group with offices in Glen Ellyn, Naperville and Plainfield. “Doing anything is better than doing nothing, and the best way to stay consistent with exercise is to pick an activity that you really enjoy for its own sake,” he says.
Ultimately, the easiest way to get fit is to go out and do physical things for fun. “A patient of mine took her son sledding after the last snowfall, and she got a great workout because she was walking up the hill over and over again, pulling the sled with her son on it up to the top so he could slide down again. She also had a great time with her son, enjoying the snow and watching him have fun,” Gonzalez relates. “You really don’t need a gym membership or expensive equipment to stay healthy.”Edit Module