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Tired of heading to the gym? Head outside this summer for a fresh way to work out

Bridget Wodowski’s parents used to ride on 100-mile bicycle tours across the Northeast with her and her sister, Stephanie, in tow, so it’s no wonder both daughters ride as adults.

Every Tuesday, Bridget can be found with other bike enthusiasts who set out on a free ride from Campus WheelWorks in the Elmwood Village. Last week, she also took her first stab at the Buffalo Bicycling Club Thursday night bike races at Larkin Square.

“It’s been nice to join another community,” said the 24-year-old financial planner, who tweaked her knee during the race but vowed to return to another contest soon. “Everybody’s nice, and helpful.”

Tuesday nights at Canalside, the music has a decidedly Latin beat. A trio of fit women take to a small platform stage and lead free outdoor Zumba classes as a burgeoning downtown commercial district continues to blossom around them. A cool Lake Erie breeze fans those gathered as they Salsa, Merengue and ChaCha.

Dozens of Western New Yorkers – flanked by the downtown skyline and inner harbor – dance, dance, dance on the pressed brick and wooden boardwalk, in a bold display of regional diversity.

Mostly women fill this space – which is just fine with Charles Yung, 55, of West Seneca.

“Whether my wife likes it or not, I get to dance with 300 women on Tuesdays,” he cracked this week as his bride, Lynda, stood beside him.

Wodowski and the Yungs are among the growing number of people who have found ways to enjoy fun, friends and group fitness during the splendid days of summer in Western New York. There are few excuses this time of year for those who want to add biking, yoga, Zumba or swimming to their fitness itinerary. Group fitness choices abound, many are free or low-cost, and the benefits of participation come in many forms, say those who take and lead the classes.

Let us count some of the ways:

Strength in numbers

“It’s a lot more fun riding with people than riding by yourself,” said Tom Robinson, 45, of Colden, a computer programmer with Erie I BOCES and member of the Buffalo and Niagara Frontier bicycling clubs. “It’s a great way to build fitness when you push yourself harder than you thought you could go.”

“It’s very motivating to be with somebody that’s doing the same thing you are, as opposed to being by yourself on a piece of equipment,” added Olivia Ebsary, who teaches the Tuesday evening Zumba classes at Canalside along with fellow Catalyst gyms’ group fitness instructor Jen Wright and Catalyst group fitness director Meghan Schimmelpenninck. The Yungs have headed to the classes every summer Tuesday since they started in 2011. The couple joined about 30 others in the early days; the first class of this season approached 400 participants.

Judgment-free zones

The Zumba class motto is “Ditch the workout, join the party,” which helps take the fear out of participating. The classes, like many outdoor activities, bring together people of all ages and backgrounds. “A lot of people don’t feel comfortable going to a dance class,” Wright said. “Here, you know there’s not mirrors – you don’t have to look at yourself. There’s hundreds of people out here not knowing exactly what they’re doing right along with you, just enjoying the sun and the music.”

The Thursday night bike races – which ended at Larkin Square last week, but will continue on other days elsewhere – are competitive. All other bike outings? Not so much. The 6 p.m. Tuesday WheelWorks rides, for instance, are broken into three categories, which vary by length and difficulty. They include a 10-mile “ice cream ride,” which features a break. That outing is not to be confused with the faster-paced 30-mile ride, said bike shop employee Jay McFadden.

The multiplier effect

A central location that focuses on a particular outdoor activity allows friends and family members from different gyms and far-flung parts of the region to get together for a workout, Ebsary said.

A good time with friends outdoors also makes you want to repeat that activity. “You make a commitment to do something and be with someone together,” Wright said.

Results: The multiplier effect leads to big gains – and losses. An hourlong Zumba class can burn 500 to 1,000 calories, Schimmelpenninck said. “People have lost a lot of weight and seen some of their inches go away, so it really is effective,” she said.

Take Laura Contreras, a nurse anesthetist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute who stakes out a spot every Tuesday at the front of the Zumba stage. She has lost 130 pounds since starting Zumba classes, inside and outdoors, 2½ years ago; Charles Yung has lost 40 pounds in a little over three years.

“I couldn’t do any of the high-impact aerobics when I started,” said Contreras, 34, of North Buffalo. “Zumba was great because it gave me the motivation of group exercise. There’s a certain energy that comes when you’re working next to other people. … Your body’s energized, your soul. You’re genuinely happy. I have more energy. I’m a better person.”

Lasting connections

“Four of five guys I knew casually when I started bike riding are now very good friends,” Robinson said. Meanwhile, the Zumba instructors keep those who take their classes updated on a “Zumba at Canalside” Facebook page. Contreras and the Yungs said the friendships they’ve made because of the classes have spilled over into shared activities that include pool parties, summer parties, Christmas parties and Zumba fundraisers for organizations and individuals in need.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from,” Schimmelpenninck said. “We’re all a Zumba family once that music starts.”