Put away the eggnog and break out the tennis shoes — it's New Year's resolution time, and no doubt millions have made the pledge to get fit. Many of them will join a gym only to find they're bored with the monotony of cardio equipment and weight training routines.
But exercise shouldn't be drudgery. Plenty of pleasurable activities deliver a legitimate workout without the hamster-on-a-wheel feeling. Surfing, kayaking, ballroom dancing, trail running and self-defense classes are just a few ways to avoid a fitness rut or supplement a regular gym workout. Some offer other benefits too, such as being outside, expanding one's social network and building confidence by mastering a new skill.
"Exercise doesn't have to be boring," says Shawn M. Arent, director of the Human Performance Lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "It can be fun and addictive in a good way."
For the rank beginner, calculating cardiovascular benefits or measuring muscle strength shouldn't be the priority. "Get out and do something," says Matt Seeley, exercise science professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. "Try to incorporate 15 minutes of some activity. Don't worry so much about what you're doing — I would call going from nothing to 15 minutes a success. Then start to increase that."
Seeley adds that as stamina and strength build, activities should vary to target different muscle groups and toggle between aerobic (moderately paced endurance exercise) and anaerobic (short bursts of high-intensity exercise) workouts. "I recognize that when I go fishing, that uses different muscles from racquetball."
For more experienced exercisers who do want to quantify things, Arent suggests getting an inexpensive heart rate monitor to gauge workout levels. You can also gauge how hard your body is working based on how hard you're breathing and how much you're sweating (what fitness experts called rate of perceived exertion). Keep in mind that the more fit you become, the more efficiently your body will work: If a half-hour of trail running used to make you perspire like a farm animal a few months ago but now you're hardly glowing, it's time to up the time, intensity or both.
Workouts with mental components can be great stress-relievers. While concentrating on paddling a kayak through a current or staying upright on a snowboard, there simply isn't room to think about your irrational boss or that lingering to-do list. "Exercise is excellent for reducing stress and anxiety," Arent says.
While not everyone in the country has access to beaches or balmy weather during the winter, there is still something to be said for breaking out of the four walls of the gym, says Carol Torgan, a health scientist and fellow of the Indianapolis-based American College of Sports Medicine. "Some research shows that just getting outside in a green space for a short period of time is beneficial," with advantages that include boosting self-esteem and mood.
A workout that leads to learning a new skill can also be great for improving self-confidence. "Today, when people are worried about the economy and jobs, there are a lot of things we don't have control over," Torgan says. "This is an avenue that lets you be successful."
It also creates a positive feedback loop, Arent says. Most people bail on their New Year's resolutions by March, but those who are consistently getting better at the rumba or self-defense techniques are more apt to stick with it.
Staying motivated may also be easier with a built-in social component, Torgan says, such as trail running clubs or skiing meet-ups. "If you know someone is waiting for you, you're much more likely to do it," she says. Even social media factors in: "People will post their workouts and compete with others, or they'll tweet how much they just ran. It makes you more accountable."
So what's the best way to get started? Fitness experts recommend trying a smorgasbord of activities to see what's enjoyable. Torgan suggests revisiting fun childhood pursuits, such as ice skating. "Don't think you've outgrown something," she says. Classes are a great way for beginners to learn skills and build up strength and endurance, and most clubs are happy to help newcomers learn the ropes.
Most instructors and workshops are set up to teach rank beginners, and it's fine to take along a friend, spouse or family member. "I love seeing a family riding down the street on their bikes," Arent says, "because they're doing something fun and it's a great opportunity to teach their kids about fitness."
Surfing may be a clichéd pastime in Southern California, but, make no mistake, it is physically and mentally challenging. The pros just make it look easy.
Catching a wave may be harder than it seems, but after a class or two even the most challenged surfer can maneuver on a board. "The most important thing is somebody's will — if they want to do it," says Patrick Murphy, owner of Venice-based Learn to Surf LA. "The oldest person we've had here was 72, and he stood up on his board."
In addition to providing a good cardio workout (try paddling over waves and see how hard your heart pounds), surfing is a whole-body workout. Murphy says that paddling mostly works the upper back muscles and the deltoids (shoulder muscles). Then comes the push-up from a lying position to a squat before standing, which employs the pectorals (chest muscles) and the triceps (muscles on the back of the upper arm). Staying upright on the board challenges core muscles that stabilize the body as the board glides over the water.
Beginning surf classes cover not only the basics of paddling and how to go from a lying to a standing position, but also safety and even surfing etiquette. (One tip: Don't muscle in on someone else's wave.)
"I work out all the time, and nothing fatigues me more than paddling a surfboard," says Majid Ali, who surfs every summer with his 10- and 12-year-old sons. Surfing provides a great workout for them as well. "It's great for their balance and is a good adjunct for the other sports they do, like martial arts, baseball, basketball and skateboarding."
Surfing, he adds, reminds him of how he was active as a child: "As kids we were always climbing things and moving on a multi-axial plane. But as we get older the things we do are more linear, like running or lifting weights. This forces you to work on balance."
It's a great mental challenge too, since surfers have to think about timing and how to suss out the good waves. But the biggest reward might come when the sun sets. "You're euphoric yet mellow by the end of the day," Ali says.
Murphy seconds that sentiment. After a day at the beach, he says, "I find I have maybe an unreasonable tolerance for the other stresses of life."
Not all runners hit the streets for their workout. Trail runners take to the dirt, bounding up and down hills and mountains on hiking trails, working legs and building cardio while getting a big dose of nature.
"All you know is that here are the mountains, and there's a deer and you're smelling the flowers and you don't think at all about your problems," says Stan Swartz, chairman of the 175-member L.A.-based Trail Runners Club.
Waxing rhapsodic about the sport isn't unusual in this crowd. "This is the most time-efficient and effective way of eliminating stress and refreshing your mind," says Elinor Fish, managing editor of Trail Runner magazine. "That is definitely a big draw of the sport, especially for people who don't have a lot of time."
While trail running requires no special skills, there is a bit of a learning curve, even for experienced runners. Trails are often hilly, making for slower but more heart- and lung-taxing workouts. Running on soft dirt puts less stress on joints, but traversing uneven terrain — even streams — can make for a wobbly gait and ups the ante for injuries. Fish recommends that beginners not only work on strengthening their legs but also add balance training on a wobble board or balance ball to increase coordination.
Legs do the bulk of the work — and what a workout it is, as hamstrings, quads, glutes and calf muscles engage on the ascents and descents. The core works to stabilize the body as the arms continuously pump.
An infusion of younger runners and more races has invigorated the sport in recent years — the American Trail Running Assn. listed 55 races across the country for December alone. But the demographics are wide and include older runners, some of whom have made the leap from road running or do both.
Trail-running gear is straightforward. Fish recommends getting shoes specifically for trail running, with treads designed to better grip the ground and more reinforcement on top to provide extra stability for the foot.
Novices are welcome to join the L.A. group, Swartz says. Weekly runs are held in various parts of Southern California, but the group also does longer excursions in such places at Santa Cruz Island and Yosemite, where runners scale up to 10,000 feet. "The accomplishment of doing 10,000 feet is terrific," he says.
Any doubts about the transformative abilities of ballroom dance should be dashed after watching one season of "Dancing With the Stars" and seeing celebrities going from flabby to fit in a matter of weeks.
Sure, they're rehearsing five to six hours a day, week after week. But the spins, turns, lifts, kicks and fast footwork of the routines show the athleticism and technique that make up the waltz, tango, cha-cha and other dances.
"I think people are happy it's a workout," says Erin Stevens, president of the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn."At the end of a class you feel like you've enriched your life in so many ways — you've burned calories and made friends and learned an art form."
Workout intensity varies by dance, but all have something to offer. "In the rumba, which is a sensual dance, you work your hips a lot," says Peri Rogovin, owner of 3rd Street Dance in Los Angeles, where many "DWTS" contestants rehearse. "That's good for the waistline, and also for coordination."
Faster dances, such as the salsa and cha-cha, build up endurance, while slower ones, like the Argentine tango, feature more muscle control via leg extensions and holds, torso rotations and back posture. Legs get most of the workout in ballroom, but the arms are engaged as well, toning muscles and raising heart rates.
Diana Bolinger has been taking swing and other ballroom dance classes at PDBA for a dozen years and credits it with regaining her fit self after having children. "It's mostly cardio, but you're also strengthening your arms and legs. You can sometimes feel it the next day." While she didn't need to lose weight, she adds, "I felt like I was more fit and not as flabby."
Most studios offering ballroom classes for pairs don't require students to pony up a partner; dancers typically rotate partners anyway. But the ballroom craze has also spawned fitness-dance hybrid classes in which an instructor leads a roomful of people in easy choreographed steps. Louis Van Amstel, a "DWTS" regular and champion competitive dancer, kicks off a class called Dance Blast at Crunch in L.A. later this month, teaching men and women such dances as the cha-cha, salsa and jive to an eclectic and high-energy mix of music.
"It works from a fitness point of view because a lot of people can do it," Van Amstel says. "Everybody can learn how to dance."
Richard Hamlin recalls his initial reaction when his wife suggested they take a kayaking trip while in the San Juan Islands: "I said, 'No, it looks like work.'"
He was half right. Kayaking can be work — as in a great workout — but it can also be a getaway from the rigors of the day. "From the very first time, I loved it," adds Hamlin, who is now an instructor at the Marina Aquatic Center in Marina del Rey, part of UCLA Recreation.
Most people kayak in one of two styles of boats. A sit-on-top, mostly used for recreation, is open, stable, and fairly flat, allowing the legs to be exposed. The touring, or sit-inside, kayak allows paddlers to nestle themselves inside a cockpit with legs outstretched.
Students use a touring kayak for sea kayaking classes at the MAC, which start with basics such as paddling strokes and how to get in and out of the boat. More advanced classes cover how to paddle through waves. "You get a lot of exercise doing that," he says.
This is a sport that mostly, but not exclusively, targets the upper body. The arms are definitely moving, but other body parts are also employed. "You really use your back and shoulder muscles," Hamlin says. "And the abs provide leverage as you rotate your torso." When swells push the boat, the hips and the oblique muscles get involved: "I tell people that it's a little like doing the salsa because you lean the boat into the wave, and use your obliques to pull the boat toward the paddle."
Feet are up against pegs, and thighs get close to the hull; all are used to guide the boat. "As you move your lower body, the boat moves with you," Hamlin says.
The reward for all that hard work is being on open water and perhaps spotting a dolphin, pelican or other aquatic creature. Kayaking in groups offers camaraderie and maybe a little competition.
The workout can be relaxing too. Travis Festa, education outreach coordinator for the American Canoe Assn. in Fredericksburg, Va., says doing an easy paddle on flat water offers stress-relieving benefits. It's "definitely more of a workout than people imagine," he says.
Kayaking is becoming more popular in urban areas with sizable bodies of water, Festa adds, so there's plenty of opportunity to give the sport a try. "Just being on the water and getting away from the day-to-day grind and finding a place in the natural world is an appeal."
Kicking and punching are great for boosting one's heart rate and toning muscles. But add some self-defense and street-fighting techniques and the adrenaline really stars to flow.
Krav Maga is the Israel Defense Forces' hand-to-hand fighting and self-defense system, taught to ordinary Joes and Janes who want to be able to handle themselves if attacked. This challenging, full-body workout will also get anyone in shape.
"With Krav Maga your focus is on defending yourself, so you're working out without realizing you're working out," says Marcus Kowal, general manager and instructor at Krav Maga Worldwide Training Center in West L.A., which has franchises across the country.
The good news is that there's no boot camp to weed out the couch potatoes — everyone is welcome to learn the technique, Kowal says. "We work you at your level, and you'll still get a workout."
Since the objective is to "eliminate danger by any means necessary," according to Kowal, the focus is on becoming an aggressor when attacked, not a victim. Students learn to punch, kick, elbow and knee their way out of being choked, grabbed or threatened with weapons. It's a full-body workout with anaerobic cardio. "Everything we do is explosive, aggressive and high-impact, but in a safe setting," Kowal says. An added bonus: All that pounding helps builds bone density.
Focus is required, but staying calm is, too, and students are taught to keep their cool in potentially violent scenarios. Although there is a belt system, they're not worn to class as with other forms of martial arts.
In a gym, Kowal says, it doesn't take long to become familiar with every piece of equipment. "If you want to get into shape," he says, "you need to sweat and get out of your comfort zone."