7 Perfect Workouts for the Perfectly Workout-Averse
A certified desk potato—and self-professed motivational vacuum—pounds both pavement and punching bags in search of Boston’s most excuse-proof fitness programs. What she discovers will hearten all those who dread, don’t understand, or are just plain sick of the gym.
On any given Sunday, there are flocks of runners circling Jamaica Pond, near where I live, looking all chipper and invigorated. I’m not one of them. I played sports in high school, but I’ll be honest: I was the weak link. Freshman year, I joined the track team, an experiment that ended the day my friend Julie and I veered off-course to Papa Gino’s for pizza and Cokes.
I wouldn’t say I’m lazy. I do yoga. I’d walk my dog if I had one. During the eight years I lived in New York City, I got my cardio by running around town to events, running to catch cabs, running just to keep up with everyone else. Here in the “Walking City,” though, everyday life isn’t much of a workout—which may explain why so many Bostonians are insatiable gym rats: Membership at the swank Sports Club/LA is said to be near capacity, the women-only Healthworks downtown is undergoing a $4 million renovation, and this month New York–bred Equinox opens in the Back Bay. (The last will house more than 100 cardio machines and an outdoor obstacle course that, no kidding, recalls ’90s reality-TV phenomenon American Gladiators.) As for me, eventually I was shamed into joining a gym, too, and now pay $150 to steam three times a month.
But that’s not going to help when it comes to prancing around on the beach this summer. Which brings me to my most grueling assignment to date: finding a fail-safe fitness program for the motivationally impaired. Over the course of a year, I cross-trained with top local athletes, endured an interesting array of morning-after aches and pains, and finally judged each regimen on whether it was compelling enough to stick with—and not just when swimsuit season looms. These seven made the cut:
1. Suffering as a Group at Ultimate Bootcamp
I’m sure there are worse situations a girl standing on a city street corner at 5:45 a.m. could find herself in, but as I shiver at the cold, rain-soaked intersection of Beacon and Charles, decked out in $80 running pants and brand-new sneakers, I’ll be damned. I’ve always hated this time of day—that horrible predawn stretch during which only bad things happen, like violent crimes, “one last drink,” or running around the Common with a bunch of strangers.
It’s day one of Ultimate Bootcamp, a four-week outdoor fitness program typically offered weekday mornings from April through December in four locations around Boston. Created by personal trainers Peter Lavelle and Jill Tomich, the hourlong group-based format will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played organized sports: lots of running, made “fun” with team activities like relays, suicide sprints, and, one day, a sadistic version of freeze tag in which the victim must submit interminably to plank position (something like a half pushup, for the luckily uninitiated).
The class, say Lavelle and Tomich, is designed to provide a jump-start for those who haven’t worked out in a while. Today Lavelle leads us on an uphill jog along the perimeter of the Common; legs burning, I envy the early-rising idlers who sit smugly on their benches as I wheeze by. My coworker Sascha, bless her, has agreed to come with me, and fares slightly better. The atmosphere is actually much more amiable than the name “bootcamp” suggests, though as we puff and curse our way through mountain climbers and high kicks up the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Sascha and I decide the Irish-born Lavelle had been trained by the IRA. Later we learn he’s a reformed party boy who hosts infamous Thanksgiving Day bongo jam sessions. Tomich is an architect by day.
At the end of an hour, I’m ready for class to be over. But I’m surprised to realize that, as the weeks progress, I go to sleep looking forward to the next morning’s installment. Both Sascha and I make it through the full session, more or less, and by the last day I find I’m able to run up the hill (and then some) without breaking a sweat.
The sell: This group-based combination of calisthenics, plyometrics, resistance training, relay races, and partner drills keeps things interesting—and keeps you coming back. Expect to shed excess weight as you add cardiovascular and muscular strength: “All muscle groups are worked in the program,” says Lavelle. “Even some you didn’t know you had!”
The experience: My jeans aren’t looser, but they look better. I’ve lost 2 pounds and gained Superwoman amounts of energy. Best of all: I can run for 10 minutes and not be left clutching my side.
Calories burned: 700–800 per hour.
Class details: $269 per session; less for returning campers. Weekend and single-day classes also available. Locations in Boston, Charlestown, Quincy, and Watertown; 617-787-1224, ultimatebootcamp.com.
Other options: FitBoot, Boston, 877-348-2668, fitboot.com; Cape Cod Adventure Boot Camp, 35 Hudson Rd., West Yarmouth, 508-737-1990, capecodadventurebootcamp.com.
2. Spinning Like a Celeb at Gstarfit
People either love or hate spinning. At the year-old Gstarfit, a mini-gym/spin studio in Needham’s Warehouse District, love looks like this: spin queen in the front row, cycling triple-time before class even starts; guy dressed in professional bike racing garb, complete with aerodynamic cap; perfectly sculpted Needham mother of two who’s been spinning religiously since the birth of her first daughter 13 years ago. Most in my class are longtime followers of owner Gregg D’Andrea, veteran trainer and spinning guru. I’m the new girl in the corner. I soon learn you can always spot a spin amateur—she’s the one wearing sneakers rather than spin shoes. She’s also the one who thinks a bike is a bike is a bike.
Unofficial motto of spin: That’s my bike! Spinners are notoriously attached to their regular spots, and woe unto those for whom this is news. Gstarfit offers three levels of membership; the highest, A-list, lets clients reserve particular bikes up to 48 hours in advance. Otherwise, as D’Andrea patiently reminds his territorial devotees, bikes are available first come, first serve (though the studio hopes to implement a time-sharing program in the near future).
D’Andrea holds class in an ultramodern 30-bike loft. Illuminated by dim red and pink lights and backed by techno music, it has the feel of a velvet-roped club, but here the drug is adrenaline and D’Andrea is the club king (he’s the “Gstar” in the name, and identified as such on the schedule). Mercifully, the strobe light is missing. Last year the studio was named an official indoor training center for the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon, and many members of Team Nine, made up largely of Red Sox wives, spin and cross-train with D’Andrea. On my first day, I’m side by side with Stacey Lucchino. We chat about movies; she’s just seen Freedom Writers. Then the lights go down.
The ride is fast and increasingly difficult, gradually building to the “top of the hill,” and interspersed with bursts of on- and off-seat movement (e.g., two beats with rear up, two beats with rear down). D’Andrea leads the way, his energy never faltering as he issues orders in a manic stream-of-consciousness: Turn. It. Up! Eyes forward there’s nothing to see on the floor I promise you won’t hit any rocks or bam! bam! turn it up again just 10 more minutes till the top of the hill keep going almost there Em-i-ly don’t cheat I am watching you!
Our session lasts 40 minutes—“no more, no less,” D’Andrea says. “That’s how spin was designed. You don’t get anything more by doing it longer.” Which works just fine for me. I’ve previously found indoor cycling torturous, the instructors sort of mean. D’Andrea certainly doesn’t sweet-talk during his classes, but in this case the motivational methods are more inspiring than insulting. Somehow, the workout is both doable and challenging; two months later, I’m still going.
The sell: No-impact cardio offers “tremendous” weight loss and fat burning without putting much stress on the joints. “For me,” says D’Andrea, “it strengthens mind, body, and soul.” And, of course, butt.
The experience: Students control their own ride, which means that while D’Andrea’s ordering you to turn up the resistance, he can’t really tell if you’re complying. I have to cheat a fair bit to make it through the first three sessions without stopping. Six weeks in, I cheat less.
Calories burned: 800 in 40 minutes.
Class details: $25 for a single class; packages start at $100. Private training sessions and nutrition counseling also available. 55 Charles St., Needham, 781-444-7827, gstarfit.com.
Other options: Boston Sports Clubs, 505 Boylston St., Boston, 617-236-1189, and other locations, mysportsclubs.com; BodyAccess Pilates and Pedal Center, 661 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-646-2639, bodyaccess.com.
3. Rowing the Charles, with Help from Some Sporty New Friends
Cory Bosworth, assistant coach of the Harvard-Radcliffe women’s crew team, describes the “flat, luxurious” Charles as one of the world’s best spots to row. Today, though, it’s rough and choppy. “Look at the Ocean Charles!” laughs one of the team members. I’m not sure it’s so funny. With the city’s public rowing programs not yet open for the season, I’ve called on Bosworth for some expert instruction. A week earlier, she had trained me in indoor rowing (itself a rapidly growing sport, with a championship held here in Boston every February). Proper form for any rowing is critical, and takes a bit of practice—which I did, 20 minutes a day since that session. Now, just a few minutes before I’m set to take to the Ocean Charles, I’m reminded of how swim lessons are the one thing my parents ever let me quit as a kid.
“All hands on the Betsy!” commands Bosworth. The Betsy is a boat, named after former Radcliffe rower and three-time Olympian Betsy McCagg. Seven other rowers and I hoist the Betsy over our heads. According to the Concept2 rowing website, rowing burns more calories than biking, and as we set off down the Charles, I feel the effort in my legs and upper back (though I’m so focused on figuring out whether I’m Bow 6 or Stern 4 that I don’t really notice it).
The girls are sweet: DiC and Michaela, the freshmen nearest to me, offer help when a) I’m off the beat, and b) my oar is dragging deep in the water; later, they cheer me on when I manage to keep up. There’s a lot to remember, but once I establish a rhythm, I’m free to marvel at the scenery as I groove along, pushing with my legs and holding my arms straight. I feel very Boston, maybe for the first time since I moved here. That’s when Bosworth, cruising nearby in a powerboat, barks, “Alyssa! Shoulders down!”
The sell: Rowing improves upper- and lower-body strength, and its impact-free nature makes it the kind of exercise you can do for the rest of your life.
The experience: I wish I were back in college. The next day my arms and back ache as if I haven’t worked out since. And yet I’m drawn by the sense of camaraderie: “Rowing is the ultimate team sport,” says Bosworth. “Everyone is doing the same motion, with the same rhythm, so you feel really connected to the people in your boat.”
Calories burned: 700–1,000 per hour.
Class details: Bosworth’s favorite public rowing outfit is Community Rowing, “just upstream” from Harvard, where sessions start at $165. Private lessons also available. MDC Daly Skating Rink, 10 Nonantum Rd., Newton, 617-923-7557, communityrowing.org.
Other options: Row as One, Newton, 617-965-8806, rowasone.org.
4. Basking in the Heat at Baptiste Power Yoga Institute
Author of such bestsellers as Journey into Power and My Daddy Is a Pretzel, Baron Baptiste is a yoga celebrity, and for years a somewhat controversial one at that. Traditionalists insist his hot, fast-paced yoga sequencing focuses more on body than on mind; Baptiste maintains that heating the studio to 95 degrees encourages a rapid release of toxins, thereby offering a direct pathway to a clearer mind—and a better body. His following is widespread, and he spends most of his time traveling across the country running sold-out workshops and speaking to groups. When he guest teaches in Boston, budding yogis line up well in advance.
As Baptiste leads me through an hourlong workout, the heat is nothing short of oppressive. Coupled with a rapid series of connected poses (vinyasas) and guided breathing, it makes for an intense experience. Cardio-wise I’m doing fine, but about 20 minutes in, my legs are shaking, my head is spinning, and I’m dripping with sweat, my yoga mat like a Slip ’N Slide. “The ultimate goal is to achieve balance,” says Baptiste, whose celebrity is palpable but not at all intimidating. “A balanced body and mind provide the foundation for everything else.” When class is finished, I leave feeling at once exhausted, energized, accomplished, and totally soaking wet. I keep going back, but I’ll offer this one caveat: Because the routine remains largely the same, there’s a chance boredom may eventually set in.
The sell: Low-impact, flowing movement creates core muscle strength and flexibility, while the heat detoxifies. Practicing four to six times a week, says Baptiste, “will yield life–changing results.”
The experience: It’s hard to tell if I’m getting a fantastic workout or just dehydrated to the point of delusion, but after two weeks of classes I feel stronger and more limber.
Calories burned: 400–500 per hour.
Class details: $14 for a 90-minute class; packages start at $130. Private lessons also available. 25 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-9642; 2000 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-9642; baronbaptiste.com.
Other options: Prana Power Yoga, 282 Centre St., Newton, 617-641-9642, pranapoweryoga.com; On the Mat Vinyasa Yoga, 30 Monument Sq., Concord, 978-318-9779, onthematyoga.com.
5. Hip-hop Dancing (or Trying to) at the Jeannette Neill Dance Studio
I’ve been known to brag about how I display uncanny talent in new endeavors: The first time I try just about any activity—squash, golf, blackjack—I catch on impressively fast. The problem is, I never improve. I play tennis no better today than when I was eight.
Hip-hop dancing is where I’ve finally met my match.
Choreographer Kelly Peters, above, teaches twice a week at the Jeannette Neill Dance Studio near North Station. As the girls in my office would say, he’s kind of a big deal, having spent the early part of his career dancing in videos for Naughty by Nature and the Human League, and later crafting moves for the likes of C-Note and Carly Simon.
Peters opens the packed, 90-minute class by leading us diagonally across the floor in “basic” hip-hop moves. I’ve tagged along with Celtics dancer Stacy Ramos, and since she’s been here many times before—and, you know, danced professionally—I’m prepared for her to be better than I am. What surprises me is that I’m no good at all. My mother would estimate having spent about $25,000 on the years and years of dance lessons I endured as a kid, and while I’m sure she’d be glad to know her investment has come in handy at a company party or two, it’s proven to be pretty much useless education otherwise. I’m a full two beats behind everyone else in the class. I crash into Ramos—and two women I don’t know—twice. I can barely comprehend the moves, never mind get my feet to execute them.
Peters is patient, but only with me: No one else needs it. They’re all pulling out K-Fed moves, even the tiny Asian girl dancing in tight jeans and Uggs. It’s less fun than frustrating, yet to be fair the other students look as if they’re having a blast. Later I discover I was in an intermediate/advanced class, which might explain things, though not nearly enough.
The sell: The fast-paced dance style works well to boost cardiovascular endurance and agility. It’s also way cooler than pounding the treadmill while watching reruns of My Super Sweet 16. Says Peters, “Hip-hop is the biggest influence on pop culture today.”
The experience: The learning curve can be steep. During my first class, I scarcely sweat, as I spend most of the time shuffling in place. But I’m concentrating so hard that I completely surrender the worries of the day. That doesn’t happen often.
Calories burned: 400 per 90-minute class.
Class details: $15 for a single class; packages start at $135. Other types of instruction include ballet, jazz, theater dance, and video dance. 261 Friend St., Boston, 617-523-1355, jndance.com.
Other options: Dance Complex, 536 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-9363, dancecomplex.org; Extreme Dancesport, 288 Norfolk St., Cambridge, 617-492-2122, extremedance sport.com; Green Street Studios, 185 Green St., Cambridge, 617-864-3191, greenstreet studios.org.
6. Unleashing the All-Star Within at CATZ
Despite my excellent standing as a member of the bowling team at my previous job (“Teen Vogue: We’re Underage But You’re Old,” our T-shirts proclaimed), I can’t seem to break into the squad here at Boston. Which brings me to CATZ (Competitive Athlete Training Zone), a Needham center that helps develop skills in team athletes of any level, with group sessions ranging from “basic” to “performance.” The latter includes pro athletes like Taylor Twellman, above, of the New England Revolution and Kate Markgraf of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, whose workout I’ve joined today.
The indoor space is set up like a high school track and field, with paved lanes for running relays and fake grass for effect. Head trainer Mark Cinelli instructs the two soccer stars and me in running drills and suicides made up of forward and backward sprints. The cardio work is accompanied by weight training, pushups, and random exercises on the grass, some of which involve racing around a two-dimensional vinyl ladder. As we drill, Markgraf and Twellman, barely breathing hard, chat about Twellman’s new condo, Markgraf’s new baby, and the Texas teen who was busted the night before for teaching his toddler nephews to smoke pot. It’s all fairly straightforward, and I’m coming across as someone who sort of knows what she’s doing, until, running backward, I slam full-speed into the wall.
Markgraf comes for the soccer-specific drills, but also because CATZ lets her work out with other people, providing motivation and healthy competition. Since she’s coming off a nasty hip injury, Markgraf tells me, she’s been taking it easy, so it’s a good day for me to join in—and maybe would I want to come back next week? She tosses me a medicine ball; as I reach for it, it drops to the floor with a thud.
The sell: Work seems like play with classes that are challenging—and constantly changing. Count on improved cardiovascular and core strength, weight loss, agility, you name it.
The experience: I feel like a real team player when Markgraf high-fives me at the end of each drill. But afterward, my calves burn for a week. Cinelli blames the pain on the backward running, not the encounter with the wall.
Calories burned: 800–900 an hour.
Class details: $12–$20 for a single class (first is free); packages start at $199. Nutrition counseling also available. 114 First Ave., Needham, 781-449-2289, and other locations, catzsports.com.
Other options: High Performance Sports Center, 10 Centennial Dr., Peabody, 978-977-7877, hpscenter.com.
7. Facing Off with an Ultimate Fighter
At Sityodtong, a two-level martial arts center in Somerville, I meet up for training with Kenny Florian, above. The 30-year-old BC grad turned Somerville-based Ultimate Fighter is here prepping for an April match at the Palms in Las Vegas (which he subsequently won). Friends fans who recall Jon Favreau’s guest turn as an Ultimate Fighter might associate the sport with its former “no holds barred” rep, but recent regulations have made Ultimate Fighting—best described as a mix of boxing, wrestling, and jujitsu—a little more humane. At 5 feet 10 and about 170 pounds, Florian’s smaller than I expected, and surprisingly cute for a guy who gets socked for a living. After he quits fighting, he says, he may pursue an acting career.
Florian is trained in Muay Thai, a form of close-combat fighting that operates on the principle that the human body can be transformed into a weapon, which could come in handy the next time I’m fighting the crowds at Louis Boston’s annual sale. It’s also an amazing workout. “Martial arts, and Muay Thai in particular, help develop what I call BRAAD,” says Florian’s conditioning trainer, Kevin Kearns. “Balance, Reaction, Agility, Acceleration, and Deceleration.” Florian, who teaches private clients, begins by walking me through basic sandbag punches and kicks. Power, he says, comes from the arms, legs, and core working together, so you must remember to punch using the actual muscles: from your biceps instead of your hands, quads instead of your feet. Otherwise, “that’s how you’ll break something,” Florian says. After about 40 minutes and 100 reps of jabs, hooks, and leg and knee kicks, he tells me I’m pretty good— for a girl. “Kidding, kidding,” he says.
The sell: Martial arts are said to foster extreme focus and a strong, lean body. They’re also good for kicking ass. And it seems anyone can do it. “AARP magazine had an article showing [age] 55-plus women taking up boxing as a weight-bearing activity,” says Kearns. “In Thailand, Muay Thai is a national sport. Children start at the age of five.”
The experience: A light dose of cardio gets my heart rate up, but doesn’t leave me embarrassingly winded. The next day, the sides of my abs—apparently they’re called obliques—ache from hard work. There’s some faint bruising along my knuckles, which makes me feel tough in the staff meeting at work.
Calories burned: 600–900 an hour.
Class details: Memberships start at $85 per month (introductory session is free); $300 per hour for a private lesson with Florian. 100 Broadway, Somerville, 617-627-9678, sityodtong.com.
Other options: Boston Muay Thai Academy, 527 Columbia Rd., Dorchester, 617-288-3988, bostonmuaythai.com; Wai Kru, 236 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-2222, waikru.com.