Group Fitness: Strength in Numbers | General Wellness | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Group Fitness: Strength in Numbers 

Personal fitness is often viewed as a solitary endeavor, and with “personal” the first word in the phrase, it’s no wonder. But more and more people are finding out that improving one’s own level of fitness doesn’t have to be a road traveled alone.

Judy Burns is the group fitness coordinator at the YMCA in Kingston, and for the past three she’s seen interest in working out in a group setting skyrocket. “The group fitness program, little by little, went from classes of five people to 50,” she says. “There really hasn’t been a focus on group fitness until recently.”

As the YMCA has begun to shift its focus toward seeing to the interests of those who prefer to work out in a group atmosphere, its offerings have expanded as well. Among the more popular classes offered are spinning, Pilates, yoga, and Zumba, a form of Latin-flavored dance fitness that saw as many as 50 participants in each of the YMCA’s pair of outdoor summer sessions, held on the lawn outside the building facing Broadway in midtown Kingston. “We enjoyed it immensely,” Burns says. “All the cars driving by were beeping at us.”

Perspiration Inspiration
For neophytes, the notion of working out for the first time in front of a group might be intimidating. But supporters of group fitness say the experience can actually be inspiring. That’s a group that doesn’t just include trainers, but also enthusiasts.

Dave Nelson, a Port Ewen health insurance worker, has been taking group classes at the YMCA for the past three years, including spinning, barbell, and a fitness boot camp that focuses on strength and cardio exercises. “Having people in a group setting, everybody feeds upon each other’s energy,” says Nelson. “Everybody has the same goal. You look forward to going there every day. You can see your friends.”

Nelson wasn’t always this comfortable with the idea of group fitness, preferring to spend his time doing solitary nautilus workout routines. But it wasn’t working out for him. “I was going to the gym on a not very regular basis,” he says. “I’d find myself losing interest and having no motivation. You just burn out.” Nelson’s girlfriend helped him make the transition from going it alone to being part of a group. While he entered his first group class with his own set of fears and preconceptions, he came to find something far more inviting. “I had a goal in mind, and when I first got there, I couldn’t do a lot of what I’m doing now,” Nelson says. “But the instructors told me to go at the pace that’s comfortable for me and work up to a certain level of fitness over time.”

Furthermore, Nelson’s anxiety over being the new kid in town was assuaged by the other people in the room. After all, they’d all been in the same boat at one time. It’s a feeling Nelson has held with him as he’s now in the position of being welcoming to people who are new to group fitness. “When I first got here people encouraged me,” he says. “And we’re all here for the same purpose. You sort of guide newcomers, and I’ve been here long enough that I can pass on some barbell skills or spinning skills.”

Burns sees the look of intimidation on new faces pretty much every day of the week. Usually, she’ll see a complete turnaround by the end of the first group workout. “Most people have that fear of walking into that room,” she says. “I let them know that nobody is looking at you. There’s no time to look at anybody else.”

From Gun-shy to Gun Show
Acceptance, or fear of finding a lack thereof, is just one of the reasons the experts say people are often a bit gun-shy about starting a fitness regime that will put them in among a group of people.

Andrea Pastorella, founder of Movita Dance Theater, teaches modern dance and core strengthening at Woodstock’s Mountain View Studio. She says the social benefits of group fitness are inherent in dance, and are encouraged in all the classes she teaches.

“Sometimes when you walk into a room full of people, you’re very exposed in dance, and even in exercise,” she says. “You look to see who’s there, what they are  wearing, how good they are. My intention is to bring people down to the same level, which is the floor, and start from there.”

Because she sees dance as a social art form, Pastorella says it can have significance beyond its ability to shape the body. And as a result, the benefits of its being used as a form of physical fitness can actually be magnified. “Dance is something you don’t do alone in your living room,” she says. “Culturally and historically, dance has always been something people do together. I think that people coming together inspires unity among ourselves and also a certain profound recognition of our own humanity.”

It’s the recognition of humanity, Pastorella says, that can help people new to group fitness get over their trepidation. “I guess what I look to do is to have the people in the class really get that we’re all built the same way. We’re all human and we have pretty much the same mechanisms; we only have different limitations. I’ve always been in classes where there were many people, and I think you learn from each other. Watching each other is where you’re really going to learn, getting inspiration from the people in the group and becoming familiar with each other. As soon as there’s a human recognition with people recognizing each other in the space, they start to have fun, they start to work harder and focus on what they’re doing instead of how they look, and I think that’s really important for people.”

Competition & Community
Peter Nathan runs the Gunx CrossFit Studio in Gardiner, focusing on a relatively new form of fitness that combines weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics in short, intense workouts. Nathan says the sense of community is there in CrossFit, but also a natural feeling of competition. “Since you’re in a group, you look around and say, ‘I’d like to do this faster than he does or she does,’” he says. “There’s a competitive aspect, but at the same time there’s a community. In the middle of a workout you might think, ‘I’m tired, this sucks,’ and you want to quit. But you look around and people are cheering you on.”

Nathan says the mix of competition and support can lead to the greatest success in fitness regimens like CrossFit. “The combination allows you to increase the intensity of your work, and the more intense that you work, the bigger the fitness return,” he says. Nathan adds that working out with a group is also helpful for people who might be inclined to let themselves off the hook. “If you’re working on your own, you usually work on your strengths,” he says. “You do what you’re good at and ignore what you suck at. I post my workouts every day on my webpage. If you look at the workout and say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ that’s the first clue about what you really need to work on.”

Michelle Duvall, co-creator of the BeyondBarre program at Pilates in Motion in Warwick, agrees. “Having somebody in a competitive sense to push you beyond your limits, or someone to lean on when you’re sore, is an advantage of group fitness,” she says. “The support and camaraderie lifts up the entire class.” BeyondBarre is a ballet-based workout that combines small muscle movements, isometric holds, and slide boards that allow for precise body-sculpting. “We use small weights to tone the arms, do some mat work to narrow the waist and strengthen the core, and we put a lot of emphasis on stretching,” says Duvall. “The slide boards really bump up the cardio.”

Regardless of which group fitness option you choose from among the many offered locally, what you may find yourself coming away with is a bunch of new friends.

“By the end, everybody’s been put through the same misery,” says Nathan. “They meet people they can hang out with, and that’s probably one of the biggest draws. Unlike going into a large or a big-box gym, where you’re shown how to use the machines once and everybody is walking around and doing the same thing—you can go to one of those for a year and still not meet anybody—there is definitely a sense of community in group fitness.”
Burns agrees. “The classes build friendships that they take outside the Y,” she says. “They go for coffee, or there’s a triathlon somewhere.” She adds that there’s even fun to be had within the classes themselves, such as a recent costume party in a barbell class on Halloween, when one (male) attendee dressed as the Tooth Fairy. “It’s not as easy to have fun when you’re working out on your own. Besides,” adds Burns, “who says you can’t squat in a tutu?”

click to enlarge Zumba class on the lawn at the YMCA in Kingston.
  • Zumba class on the lawn at the YMCA in Kingston.
click to enlarge A group fitness class at Beyond Barre in Warwick.
  • A group fitness class at Beyond Barre in Warwick.
click to enlarge Step class at MAC Fitness in Kingston.
  • Step class at MAC Fitness in Kingston.
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