An Exercise In Creativity
Fitness programs that lead the pack
By Stacy St. Clair
Recreation managers are on the front line of this arduous effort. It won't be an easy task, however, given new reports that show a dramatic increase in overweight adults throughout the country.
According to the Trust for America's Health, adult obesity rates continued to rise in 31 states over the past year. The growth reflects a significant jump in obesity in the past two decades. The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that 30 percent of U.S. adults 20 years or older—more than 60 million people—are obese.
But it's not just an adult problem. The percentage of overweight young people has tripled since 1980. Among children and teens ages 6 to 19, an estimated 16 percent—more than 6 million—are overweight.
The risks associated with being overweight are well documented and extremely serious. The condition can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, among other complications. Obese adults are also more susceptible to some types of cancer, including endometrial, breast and colon.
So, it's no exaggeration to say that recreation managers who can entice people to work out could be saving lives. Winning this war, however, will take more than just a willingness on the fitness industry's part. It's going to require imaginative programs that offer participants a fun time, in addition to a sound workout. Such lofty goals can be accomplished with niche programming that caters to participants' needs and abilities.
We looked around the country and found four wonderful success stories. These classes and fitness regimens have fired the first volleys in the war against obesity. Their innovations and energy should serve as an inspiration for all of us to enlist.
Today's most successful fitness programs cater to specific groups. Some target seniors and kids. Others go after moms and their tots. In 2001, trainer Cynthia Conde designed a program for an underserved but extremely motivated group: brides-to-be.
"I created it after a woman came to me and asked for help," she said. "She was 210 pounds, and she wouldn't set a date for the wedding until she lost some weight. I ended up taking her down to 118 in a little over a year."
Conde started the woman out on basic weight-training programming, but soon found she needed to take it a step further. She thought of her brother who was overweight when he entered the military but returned from boot camp with a new, impressive physique.
Whatever he did there worked. Conde wanted to emulate the take-no-prisoners attitude the U.S. Armed Forces promote during basic training.
"I learned the military has a quicker, more efficient way of working out," she said. "It was a great way for me to keep my clients there when I combined my training with military training. I just needed to modify some exercises so they're less stressful. But it's a really effective, really cool, fun workout."
Her plan quickly evolved into Bridal Bootcamp, a total-fitness program that has taken root across the country. It incorporates stretching, abdominal work, aerobics and strength training in streamlined, 30-minute workouts designed to shape and tighten every muscle group. In addition to the physical assistance, the program gives participants advice on nutrition and wellness. The program typically lasts 12 weeks, with a different focus each week to stave off boredom. However, Conde encourages the newly betrothed to get cracking at least six months before the big day.
Brides-to-be can opt for either one-on-one training or group classes. Most prefer the group exercise, Conde said, because it gives them a chance to socialize, trade wedding tips and offer one another encouragement. Not surprisingly, dress sizes are often the hot topic of conversation.
"Women love to talk while they exercise, and they develop this bond and support each other because they're all going through one of the most important experiences in their lives together," Conde said. "This really gets the best results for brides."
The program clearly has struck a chord among a particular niche. It's not just brides who seek Conde's help. Bridesmaids, mothers-of-the-bride and mothers-of-the-groom have all come to Conde in hopes of having a trimmer, firmer body on that special day.
Even women who don't have weddings on the horizon have turned to the program because of its quick results and catchy name. Conde has fielded inquiries from all over the country.
"I also get a lot of phone calls from women that are in shape but just bored with their routines," said Conde, whose personal training and nutrition consulting company is based out of Gold's Gyms in Astoria and Woodside, N.Y.
The program's popularity has led to classes all over the country, including 10 different New York locations. It also has produced a book, "Bridal Bootcamp: Look Fabulous on Your Big Day." The net result has been a fresh, successful program that found a way to engage an untapped segment of the fitness-seeking population.
"I have created a niche market in the bridal fitness industry," Conde said. "There's no one more motivated than a bride-to-be."
In the mercurial recreation world, Wayne Westcott doesn't waste his time trying to predict the next fitness fad. He just knows what works.
"I'm not very good at predicting trends- I've always been wrong," said Westcott, the fitness research director at South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass. "But I do know seniors are getting more interested in strength training."
Studies show that exercise, in general, helps seniors maintain their health and delay the onset of diseases and disabilities. Research has found that seniors who exercise reduce their chances of developing heart disease, diabetes and low bone density, among other ailments.
Additional research has proven that strength training, specifically, has a wonderful impact. It's effective for improving glucose metabolism, increasing bone mineral density and speeding up gastrointestinal transit. It also goes a long way toward alleviating back pain and reducing arthritis discomfort.
Westcott, who has authored several books, including "Strength Training Past 50," recently conducted a study that further reinforces the benefits of senior strength training.
His research focused on analyzing data from 1,132 men and women who completed the South Shore YMCA basic fitness program. The participants, who represented various age groups, performed 25 minutes of strength exercise and 25 minutes of endurance exercise two or three times per week for two months.
The results showed that seniors improved their weight and composition much like younger adults. They also developed lean muscle tissue at the same rate as other program participants. Replacing muscle is critical for older people because sedentary seniors risk losing more than 5 pounds of lean muscle mass every decade. Adding just 2.4 pounds of muscle, seniors bucked nearly five years of the aging process after just two months of strength training.
The strength-training seniors made bigger strides than their younger test subjects when it came to blood pressure. On average, seniors experienced a 3.7 mm Hg decrease in diastolic blood pressure and a 6.2 mm Hg reduction in systolic blood pressure.
Improving systolic blood pressure was particularly important to the senior participants because many began the study above the hypertensive line, but ended within the normal range. Such progress speaks volumes about the effectiveness of circuit training programs, Westcott said.
"Circuit strength training has become very popular," he said. "There's been quite a lot of research done on that. I think that's going to be a major growing trend for seniors—a more specific, intensive training program. Brief, but specific."
In addition to recognizing the health benefits to their patrons, proactive recreation managers understand that senior fitness programs offer an excellent chance to plan for the future. U.S. Census Bureau statistics suggest that roughly 40 percent of the population will be older than 50 by the year 2030. The data also predict that the percentage of the population aged 65 and older will jump from the current 12 percent to 20 percent in the next 25 years.
Recreation managers would be well advised to address the needs of this growing and influential segment of the population. Having a circuit weight-training program in place now will greatly benefit aging baby boomers later.
"That's what I think we're coming to—a more specific strength-training program," Westcott said. "It's brief, but intense enough to build muscle, build bone density and reduce the risk of the incidence of diseases like sarcopenia and osteoporosis. Seniors recognize this."
Sally Shaver has watched childhood obesity rates climb for the past 18 years.
But the Ames, Iowa, educator has never seen it this bad.
"It's amazing to me how many preschoolers are coming to school obese," she said. "Kids today are not getting the physical activity children in the past received. One of the reasons is too much time in front of a screen, whether it's a TV, computer or video-game screen. Another reason is the time factor. Most kids are from two-parent working families where time is of the essence. Kids are in a lot more activities today than they used to be in, and there is no time to make a meal from scratch anymore. It's all fast food in the drive-through."
The prevalence of overweight children has more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1980, roughly 7 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 were overweight. Today, that number has ballooned to roughly 16 percent.
Among the chief causes is the woefully sedentary lifestyle in which they engage.
The Internet and video games make it easy for a child or teenager to spend all afternoon in front of screen. Not only does TV-watching prevent children from taking part in physical activity, but it also leaves them susceptible to advertisers. Research has shown that prolonged television exposure correlates to decreased fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as higher intakes of fast food and fried food.
Schools, no matter how well-meaning, haven't helped much in this regard. Lunch options aren't as well balanced as they could be, and many campus vending machines sell high-calorie, high-fat snacks and sugary sodas. Poor nutrition is becoming even more dangerous in school systems where physical education has been cut as part of drastic budget-reduction measures.
Here's where Shaver, a former physical education teacher, enters the picture. She visits schools as Silly Sally the Clown, a wacky character who uses music, puppetry and jokes to teach kids about the benefits of exercise and good nutrition. She gets the children up and moving during the program, getting them to exercise even if they don't realize it.
"I think for children, and even for adults, the most important thing is to make exercise fun," she said. "Incorporate music, obstacle courses, parachutes and doing activities with songs that have music. They need to get into it."
Shaver expanded her fitness-first repertoire in January when she purchased and converted an old bus into a mobile gymnasium. The seats have been removed from the vehicle and replaced with carpeting and padding, as well as slides, rings, balance beams and tumbling mats. Her service—the KangaKids Fun Bus—offers preschools and daycare centers an entertaining (and affordable) way to provide students with weekly physical education classes.
Similar buses have been in operation for several years in other areas, but there had never been such a service in her community. The response has been extremely positive, said Shaver, who also has released a "Fun with Sally" video and CD.
"I had been thinking about doing this for 10 years, and now I have this creative fitness program," she said. "Right now, kids and parents really enjoy it. It's a new concept for central Iowa. It's just a matter of educating parents."
No matter the fitness program, instructors must cater their classes to children's motor skills and attention spans. Shaver recommends limiting activity length to the child's age. For example, when working with 4-year-olds, keep the activity time to about four minutes before moving onto the next.
"With kids, variety is important," Shaver said. "You have to keep them interested in what they're doing."
She also knows that young children like structure and stability, so she tries to keep the exercises and activities familiar. She ends each class with the same song and puppet performance. Her most repeated lesson, however, encourages her young charges to be lifelong fitness enthusiasts. She tells them over and over that it doesn't matter what they're doing, as long as they're moving.
"Doing something," she reminds them, "is always better than doing nothing."
Here's some good news for park districts that can't afford to build a state-of-the-art recreation center: You can still offer residents healthy exercise options. In fact, according to fitness expert Jimmy Minardi, you have the perfect workout area right outside your window. The great outdoors is nature's health club, he said, and recreation managers would be wise to encourage its use.
"We've been brainwashed into thinking that you have to join a gym to get fit," he said. "That's just not true. The gym does not equal fitness, health and wellness. You need to get people outside and move their bodies."
Minardi, owner of East Hampton, N.Y.-based Minardi Training, designs all his workouts for the outdoors. As a former professional triathlete and cyclist, Minardi knew about the power of outdoor exercise when he began his business.
He designed his first—and most famous—outdoor workout when he was just 14 years old. His father was once a lifeguard and often talked about the health benefits of merely walking barefoot on the beach. When the younger Minardi stopped to think about all the things lifeguards must do—running on the sand, swimming against waves, lifting heavy objects—he realized they had the perfect fitness routine.
The program eventually evolved into the Lifeguard Workout, which has garnered national media attention for its fresh approach to fitness. The regimen is a unique combination of plyometrics, ocean rescue drills, yoga, weight training, swimming, speed, balance training and plain old fun on the beach.
Though the 80-minute workout varies all the time, it typically involves a cardiovascular obstacle course that the group navigates en masse. The program also includes light weights, as well as a cool-down featuring a sit-up and push-up cycle.
Minardi likes to point to the ocean during the class and ask clients if they like his gym. He also refers to his patrons as athletes, so they think of their bodies as things that must be cherished and well maintained.
"When people get to their bodies, they take their brain out," he said. "We treat our technology and our stuff better than the things we live in—our bodies."
There's more to Minardi Training than just the Lifeguard Workout. He also offers road cycling, mountain biking, surfer yoga and vinyasa weight-training classes. Though the classes might differ, the location always stays the same: the great outdoors.
"Why go inside when you can go out?" Minardi asked. "Working outside is so much better for you. Being in the elements is healthy for both your muscles and your balance. My philosophy is the more outdoor air you get, the better."
Simply put, Minardi should serve as an inspiration to parks departments that don't have the money to build recreation centers. No matter the budget or the facilities, they have Mother Nature's fitness club right outside.
"There's no excuse," Minardi said. "There are plenty of options available to everyone. Encourage people to put their shoes on and go outside."
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