Imagine getting into shape without a gym.
It's a tempting prospect.
No annoying music blasting at you. No hassle getting to the gym when the weather's bad. Plus, you get to head home from work or school and work out in your comfy home.
You can also just take your phone, loaded with fitness apps, and head to the park, on your own, on a sunny day.
Sounds great, right?
Good news first: Thanks to apps and YouTube videos, you have a million workout options that do not involve the gym. Most of these options are free. Some of them are fun.
Now here's the bad news: Many of them are not fun.
The challenge: Finding the ones that are.
There's an art to an exercise video. Just as at the gym, the workout should be challenging, but not brutal. If it's brutal, you might force yourself through it once, but it'll be tough to get yourself to face it again.
Psychology-wise, the gym has a plus. You're cheered by seeing the instructor, and the rest of the class, sweating along with you. A video is different. How do you know that instructor is doing all these exercises all at once? Videos can fib.
An app can work as an exercise buddy, bugging you to get up and take a walk. But it's easier to ignore than a human being. Working out with an app or a video, you're not accountable to anyone but yourself.
I tried to rely on them for a month to see how it went. I ended up sneaking in a few visits to the gym, because sometimes I found myself shirking my virtual trainers.
I also discovered, though, that if you're disciplined, and keep your sense of humor, these electronic workouts can be a big help. Do it faithfully, and you can feel yourself growing stronger from day to day.
Here are some free options to try.
Many smartphones have a pedometer app automatically. Mine didn't, so I got one called, well, Pedometer. I use it to shoot for the recommended 10,000 daily steps. This thing is iron. It has never failed me.
This app aims to get you to spend at least 30 minutes on your feet, which it calls your "daily 30." It will wheedle, "How about an afternoon walk before dinner?" Or "Let's go around the block." Or simply, "Let's get up." Get to your Daily 30, and it heaps praise on you. "You're making other people jelly." Once, it said simply "Goodness." It also lets you stack yourself up against active people near you. My main rival is Howard, the guy I married. He installed Human (human.co) when I did and naturally, is always ahead on the leader boards. I've had a few technical problems with the app. Otherwise, it's amusing and encouraging. It has encouraged me to walk when I otherwise would not have. It maps your walk, ingeniously, over grids of Buffalo streets. When it says, "Stretch your legs," it's hard to argue.
This network of YouTube videos offers over 600 workouts. Many of them are the loud, fat-blasting, pound-it-out variety, some led by TV fitness guru Jillian Michaels. But a few are unusual. And BeFiT (youtube.com/user/BeFit) offers a definite change of pace in an extensive series of Ballet Beautiful workouts, led by Mary Helen Bowers. She trained Natalie Portman for "Black Swan," which is recommendation enough for me. Try the Ballet Beautiful Blast for when you don't have much time. I can't sum up her style better than one person did in the comment section: "Everything's white, there's relaxing music playing in the background, she's so calm, talking gently – and then there's me. DYING."
An app and a YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/blogilates) that stars Cassey Ho, who is funny, bubbly and cute. She emails you calendars, too, with exercises specified for every date. The workout I tried was just too grueling – too much squat, squeeze, lunge, crunch, over and over. Aren't crunches outdated? Didn't they decide that planks are better? But she makes you laugh at the same time. Good for those days after you ate those wings and wish you hadn't.
These are a couple of hippies on YouTube (youtube.com/user/cexercize), Mark and Juliana, who lead you through yoga and Pilates workouts. Apparently they got married in a flower child wedding, sold everything in their Toronto apartment and are now bumming around the world. They've got it all figured out, and their pep talks about gratitude and mindfulness can get a little annoying. But the workouts are fun. They are broadcast from breathtaking locales, from the tropics, where they did yoga among elephants, to Canada's Banff National Park, where Juliana did Pilates by a frozen lake. You have to wonder if it's all fake, and they've been in Toronto all along. But you're entertained, and you get in a workout, with a minimum of the New Age proselytizing you sometimes have to put up with in a gym yoga class. Juliana is beautiful and nice, and you can tell yourself that with a little more work, you might be able to look like her.
This "online gym" (efit30.com) is a favorite of mine because it features teachers from Australia and South Africa. I love their accents and also their humor. "Clear a space on the floor and let's get started," is what one Pilates instructor, Angela, typically tells you. And: "Tighten your butt, need I say more?" There are a lot of yoga videos, too, for every level. They work you out without killing you and, again, without that New Age stuff. (Why do so many yoga teachers have to ask me to set an intention for my practice? My intention is to look like a supermodel.)
I like videos filmed in pretty locales, so I can forget that I'm in my cluttered living room. So I was happy when I found a video (kristinmcgee.com) showing a tall, lean woman working out in a lovely, candlelit lodge. Mistake! Ten minutes later, I was exhausted. Keep going, I told myself. And I did – all through this hour-long video. When I could get up, I read some of the video's comments. That was when I learned who my trainer was – Kristin McGee, a celebrity trainer. "This woman is not normal," someone had commented. "I almost broke my legs." Someone else had written, "OMG I think I just died." I could honestly have typed: "LOL me too." But that candlelit lodge was pretty, and there was enough variety in the workout to make me want to try another one. Plus, I like a challenge. I'll be back. McGee has her own YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/kristinmmcgee) with a wide variety of workouts and stretching videos.
This offers a dizzying variety of YouTube videos (youtube.com/user/popsugartvfit). The trainers chirp things like, "Another day in paradise!" and "Get ready to burn it up!" And I feel cool seeing videos with titles like "5 Moves to Add To Your Urban Run" (not that I run), "5 Boxing-Inspired Moves For a Flat Belly," and the one I ended up settling on, "30-Minute Fat-Frying Bikini Body Workout." The fat-frying workout was kind of brutal, sure. But the trainers on this site have a way of keeping you laughing. I also like that whatever workout you want – short, long, beginner, advanced, cardio, Pilates, anything – it's here.
This is an app (sworkit.com) that lets you build your own workout. They give you mini-videos of various exercises, incorporating strength training, cardio and yoga. You choose the number of minutes you have, and tell it which part of your body you want to work on. It's pretty no-nonsense, and it doesn't coach you, but it's easy to use, and you get to watch a human being – albeit a very fit human being – doing the exercises. And it does make the most of your time. I liked the Dive Bomber Push Up. I never thought I could do push-ups, but I could do this one because it's that flow you do in yoga, going from Down Dog down to Up Dog and then back again. Wow, look at me! Suddenly I'm fit.
Well, more fit than I was, anyway.
Exhibiting rare will power, I decided to take on a 21-Day Pilates Challenge from Boho Beautiful, listed up above. It is anchored on a grueling 30-minute long Pilates session, which you perform many times over the course of three weeks. By now I have it pretty much memorized. "Hold that leg. Do not let it drop. Breathe. You can do it. Awesome. Awesome, guys! Now we're going to move that leg around in a circle..."
"Ow," I kept saying through gritted teeth. "Ow ow ow ow ow." But I kept at it. I also made sure to do other videos prescribed in addition to that one, with such titles as "Define Your Abs" and "The Waistline Crusher." Hey, it's all free! And after a few days, the ab stuff wasn't as bad. The leg stuff took longer, but two weeks in, it was less excruciating. I didn't lose any of the 10 pounds I was trying to lose. But things started feeling different.
Day 16 brought a payoff. Two weeks before, I had recklessly bought a dress that was too small for me. "I'll diet into it," I had told myself. Yeah, right.
Just for the heck of it, I tried on this dress – and it fit!
It had to have been this challenge. I hadn't made any other changes in my life. Other things fit better, too – in some cases, dramatically. Thank you, Boho Beautiful! Thank you, Refresh! Thank you, technology! And now, it's back to the mat.
I still have four days to go.
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Twitter: @BNrefresh, @MaryKunzGoldman