Push the envelope

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 2010, 12:00am

If you have ever uttered the words, 'I hate the gym', or 'it's too hot' as an excuse not to exercise, maybe you haven't looked at the alternatives to getting fit and healthy in Hong Kong?

And if that New Year's resolution is already wearing thin, don't give up yet. Mixing an exercise programme with something new alongside the old can be the way to ensure you stay with it, especially as some fitness professionals say they now realise it's not all serious business.

'Varying exercise is key,' says fitness trainer Toby Jones, who runs Total FitnessHK Sports. 'You only really need to do 20 minutes a day regularly - something to get the heart rate up.'

Although he admits this might not be enough for the super busy parent or city worker who needs more energy.

'It is just down to how much you prioritise exercising and how important keeping fit and exercise is in your life,' he says.

Jones, who utilises Hong Kong's outdoors for training and runs group classes in and around Shek O, says he keeps it interesting by regularly introducing new elements.

'New toys, different locations, different intensities - it's basically the same as one's sex life,' he jokes.

David Menhennett, who trains the trainers at Pure Fitness, says the reason why we may or may not stay with an exercise regimen in a gym comes down to basic human nature, which is why the trend in indoor exercise is about having fun.

'The first 30 days [of being in a gym environment] are the key to forming new habits,' he says. 'So in those days, it's really important that the reward centre of the brain is stimulated. Then, you're more likely to continue.

'What we have realised is that fitness has become so serious and one thing we're bringing back is playing games and having fun.'

The feeling that exercise is not a chore is something that works for graphic designer Sandrine Lalaman, who discovered it when she took up surfing last year.

'Surfing doesn't come in the exercise category for me,' says Lalaman, who has a dance background and still takes regular dance classes. 'I love the feeling of freedom and it doesn't cost me anything. I have a regular exercise routine background, and for me, it's a lifestyle.'

Like Lalaman, Jones advocates making the most of what Hong Kong offers on the outside, an easier option than many of us realise, he says.

'Hiking, hiking and hiking,' Jones says. '[In Central], we are no more than 30 minutes from a good trail. The Peak is so close for many and yet underrated.

'Outdoor circuit training and boot camp-style classes offer good alternatives. Running is a good outdoor setup and there are plenty of running clubs.'

Also an outdoor proponent, Jane Parry takes to the surf in autumn and winter.

'I go body boarding two or three days a week, usually first thing in the morning,' says Parry, a mother of two and a university student.

She says she feels fitter because it combines different elements - swimming out to get behind the waves, staying balanced and then wading back into the water for the next wave.

'It's not just the physical benefits I like,' she says. 'It always clears my mind and leaves me feeling better both physically and psychologically. I've never been a gym club member. If I'm going to run or cycle, I want to get somewhere.'

Yet for office workers with long hours, finding the time on weekdays armed with lofty New Year Resolutions is the problem. Another issue is if they want to hike the hills, take up surfing or run in a club on weekends, their basic strength may be lacking and they can easily sustain injuries.

Professionals say finding a strengthening, balancing and flexibility regimen on weekdays that keeps them interested long-term is the challenge.

This is where Menhennett says the gym industry's new approach to fun comes in, citing TRX classes as an example. TRX was created by a US Navy Seal familiar with cramped conditions who wanted to develop exercises that did not need much space or heavy, non-portable equipment.

They simply use a long, flat, sturdy rubber band with reinforced loops at the end into which you place your feet, arms or hands, depending on the exercise. It's long enough to hang over a door frame and at Pure it's attached to the walls, so there's no fear of it slipping or coming loose.

Soon, the classes will be able to accommodate 20 people in one go. It's being rolled out in all Pure's fitness centres.

'TRX's popularity is climbing,' says Menhennett. 'There's an element of play with TRX. It's accessible, it's all levels and it's perfect for a nation of people who sit all day.'

Menhennett says the gym is increasingly becoming the way to get ready for outdoor pursuits during leisure time.

'More and more now, we cater for people looking to the gym to prepare them for fun at the weekend,' he says, citing wakeboarding as a popular pastime that requires some strength.

Elsewhere, Dawnna Wayburne, a former London Royal Ballet dancer and now owner of ISO Fit studio and DMR School of Ballet, says use of the Gyrotonic expansion system has increased around the city.

'There's a choreographic aspect to it that keeps someone entertained. You can also vary it, which already creates a level of interest,' Wayburne says.

The Gyrotonic system allows users to stretch and strengthen muscles and tendons while also articulating and mobilising the joints. Corresponding breathing patterns are designed to increase co-ordination, endurance and aerobic fitness.

Juliu Horvath created the Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis principles (the same exercises, but on a mat). He wanted to repair injuries he had sustained as a professional dancer, but also sought to create exercises that anyone could perform, regardless of their age or fitness level.

The hallmark of the Gyrotonic equipment is the sense of circularity. There's a pulley and rotational pieces, whereas Pilates machines use springs. A one-hour lesson is imperative before beginning to practise the technique, but group classes are starting soon.

'Most people know a little more about Pilates,' she says, 'but not Gyrotonics. If people are looking for alternative methods, Gyrotonics would spark interest. It's still the new kid on the block, and it is mind and body. It's being aware, as opposed to being on the treadmill reading a magazine.

'When I first started teaching and training here, we were the only studio in town with the equipment, and now every Pilates or movement-based studio has gyro equipment. It absolutely has become more popular.'

Although it's initially a slow form of exercise, Gyrotonics can make you work up a sweat as you get to know the equipment. There are some cardiovascular-type twists and pulls and there can be a flow.

And because of its toning and balance focus, it works well as an adjunct to other workouts and even assists with daily physical movements such as driving a car.

'It's not designed to replace other exercise,' Wayburne says, adding that many people still go to the gym, dance classes or yoga to mix things up.

'I know people want to strengthen and tone and that comes into play, but you also take strategies from it. Twist and pull, for example, will improve your golf swing ... we replicate shapes we do in every day life.'

Finally, remember not to go too hard too soon when starting a new routine. Preparation is important, says Active isolated stretch practitioner Chris Watts, who runs Stretch Asia.

'Here we have these gung-ho weekend warriors exercising, doing adventure races, and the wear and tear is enormous. They should be much better prepared,' says Watts.

Active isolated stretching aims to help relieve pain, straighten posture and increase flexibility, making your body more mobile, especially if you plan on taking up a new sport.

'We have to have good posture and balance when doing sport,' he says. 'One of the key components to fitness is flexibility training. You can't be strong and powerful if you don't have that range of motion.'

To make getting stronger even easier, Watts is bringing the classes to the office. He has just started offering group stretch exercise classes at an international bank's office during lunch and in the evenings. They provide a no-shower-necessary option that is announced on the company's intranet to alert staff.

'The company wants them to get out and enjoy themselves, so productivity is higher,' he says.

Now, it seems, there's no excuse.