Not long ago, I read an article about how some men stay in shape, and one guy said his tactic was to hit the gym any time he could and take whatever class was on tap.
That speaks to the appeal of classes — a defined start and end time with a leader to put you through your paces, no aimless wandering around the gym waiting for equipment and the camaraderie of exercising with a group.
And going to class regularly can be important. Besides the obvious physical benefits, studies such as one recently published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology suggest that inactivity affects the structure and function of the brain and contributes to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Fitness classes are making use of research-based principles, with innovative moves, counterintuitive sequencing and even adjusted background elements, such as the pace of the music. We sampled a few classes around L.A.
Flow play vinyasa at Equinox
"Yoga is about the study of the self," Derek Beres said, "and from neuroscience there's more research about how our brains operate, so if you want to study the self, you have to study the brain."
Beres, a former music journalist who 10 years ago turned yoga instructor, said he always knew that music would be a part of his practice, even though it was absent in his training. He and DJ and producer Philip Steir developed a scientifically based sequencing of music for vinyasa and "restore" yoga classes that Equinox is rolling out across the country.
On a Thursday morning in Equinox's plush paneled yoga room in Marina del Rey, the music wasn't obvious, just occasionally coming into consciousness as Beres moved the class with a steady pace. And that was the point.
"A study at the University of Berlin found that sitar music, which we heard today in our resting pose, lowers the level of cortisol in the blood," he said afterward. (Heightened cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, is often associated with high blood pressure.)
Using music as a catalyst for more precise movement and a clarity of focus is the norm for cardio, Spinning and, of course, dance, classes, but yoga has been slow to pick up on it, Beres said. "You may not be thinking about the music, but your brain is picking up on it. It's affecting you chemically, even if you don't realize it," he said.
Equinox, 13455 Maxella Ave., Suite 204, Marina del Rey (and other locations). Membership rates vary; at Marina del Rey, from $156 to 195 a month. www.equinox.com/clubs/marina
L.A.B. at David Barton Gym
The sunlight was streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows in trainer Caroline Ficksman's Wednesday morning L.A.B. (lactic acide breakthrough) class at Barton's Westside location. Based on interval training, the class cranks up "the volume" — the number of reps of an exercise done in a brief time.
After warming up, we blasted through four back-to-back one-minute intervals in sequence, like shoulder presses (with or without light weights), then speed squats, hammer curls and leg raises, doing as many reps as we could, with 10 seconds in between to catch our breath. Then a minute's rest. Then repeat, with different exercises, doing about four of these groupings, plus warmup, per class.
"It's a trick that bodybuilders have been using for years," Ficksman said, referring to the lactic acid training principles used to develop the class. "Basically, when lactic acid is released, that's when you feel the burn."
The goal is to push through that burn, using up glycogen (the body's stored carbohydrate) and then using lactic acid as fuel.
David Barton Gym Westside, 12100 Olympic Blvd. Membership, $107 a month or $97 with a 12 month-commitment. www.davidbartongym.com/dbgyms/#losangeles
The MashUp at Fitmix Studio
Sunday morning at 8 found us pounding the treadmills at Fitmix Studio. For 25 minutes, co-owner Brian Tuthill lived up to his vow to "push you without breaking you." We did escalating intervals of running and sprinting, but the diversity of the class in age and male-female ratio allowed for options that made everyone comfortable.
That was immediately followed by a half-hour of Pilates.
Research shows that 30 minutes of interval training has the same cardiovascular benefit as two hours of running, so adding an explosive cardio element to slow-moving Pilates, which focuses on stability, core and toning, is the best way to get the body to respond in a limited time, Tuthill said.
Fitmix Studio, 601 N. La Brea Ave. Individual classes, $35; monthly unlimited and multiple class rates available. www.fitmixstudio.com
H2-Om at Crunch Gym
"How are you doin', Mr. Man?" instructor Sahara Alli asked amiably as she looked my way. We were deep into Crunch's latest class, H2-Om, offered at its family-friendly Burbank location, complete with day care.
We were alternating between sets of yoga positions on floor mats and almost identical moves on simulated surfboards, wobbly platforms that test your balance and develop your core. It turns out, for instance, that a warrior yoga pose is similar to a "goofy stance" sideways on a surfboard.
"So it's like the idea of going from the beach, where you're grounded and stable," said Taj Harris, group fitness manager, who developed the class, "to the surfboard, where your sensation is 'Whoa!'"
That "Whoa!" factor of finding your balance does more than just develop your core and the supporting quads, hips and thighs. You're also challenging your proprioceptors — sensory receptors on nerve endings found in muscles that make us aware of our body position and movement — and causing increased neuron activity in the brain thought to be beneficial to cognitive health.
Crunch Burbank, 761 N. San Fernando Blvd., Burbank. Membership averages $75.99 a month, complementary guest passes available. www.crunch.com/locations/california/los-angeles/burbank
Broadway Bodies L.A.
OK, maybe it's a bit of a stretch to think that bringing out your latent "Broadway Baby" satisfies a scientific imperative about effective exercise. On the other hand, just take a look at any dancer's body.
You smile when you walk into the mirrored studio on a Monday evening, with flowing scarves attached to the barre and plastic top hats piled on the floor. But Joseph Corella, American Dance Awards' 1997 teen male dancer of the year and now a choreographer, will have you sweating soon enough as he briskly starts on the first half-hour of aerobic moves. Put them all together and, surprise, suddenly you're doing part of the opening bit from "A Chorus Line."
Scientifically speaking, it's what's called functional exercise, which tries to incorporate as many variables as possible, such as balance and multiple planes of movement (as opposed to isolating one muscle, as in weightlifting) to increase the complexity of motor coordination and flexibility.
Not to mention stamina. Though the first portion of the class stays consistent week to week, so people can see their improvement, Corella uses the second half to teach a new routine to music from a different show. Tonight he announces to the class — a mix of sexes, ages and sizes — that it's "Kinky Boots," Broadway's hit about a shoe factory saved from ruin by some sassy performers.
"Channel your inner drag queen," he exhorts, to the inevitable snappy comeback from somewhere in the ranks: "Inner?"