Roller-Skating for Fitness as Well as for Fun : After Taking a Spill With the Disco Craze, Sport Is Back on Its Feet Again


On balmy Friday nights during the ‘50s, Neil Feineman used to roller-skate in Miami’s Flamingo Park. He’d clip on a pair of $3 skates, the kind with metal wheels, and join the other kids doing the “Hokey Pokey” among the palm trees and blooming hibiscus.

Feineman’s still roller-skating, but these days he frequents the bike path at Venice Beach, shooting along at up to 15 miles per hour in a pair of $400 custom-designed skates. The West Los Angeles resident is one of a growing number of Southern Californians who are roller-skating for fitness as well as for fun.

Although most people consider roller-skating simply a pleasant afternoon activity, the sport has been endorsed by the American Heart Assn. as a safe, effective way to promote cardiovascular fitness.

“A lot of exercise hurts and it’s not fun, but roller-skating is a way of getting exercise without even thinking about it,” says avid roller skater Debra Sue Maffett, co-host of television’s “PM Magazine.”

Anyone who spent a Sunday afternoon on Ocean Front Walk between 1977 and 1981 knows that roller-skating was once the rage. During that era, thousands of people were renting skates and rumbling down the pavement, and the fad soon spread across the nation and the world. “The roller-skating industry went bananas at that time,” says Michael Fleming, who operates two Southland roller-skating rinks. “But roller-skating was tied to disco music, and when the music went out, skating followed it right down the drain.”


70 Rinks in California

Although down from a high of 48 million in 1980, about 25 million Americans went roller-skating at least once last year, according to the Roller Skating Rink Operators Assn. Of the nation’s 2,500 roller rinks, about 70 are in Southern California.

“Until the big disco surge, roller-skating had always been considered a suburban, family-oriented sport,” says Allen Selner, a Sherman Oaks podiatrist. “Disco got the high school crowd involved, but when disco crashed, there was nothing left to develop the sport in the public’s eyes.”

Because no scientific data on the benefits of roller-skating as a fitness activity was available, Selner conducted a study on the subject in conjunction with the UCLA Department of Kinesiology. Twenty-five men and women between the ages of 22 and 54, who were not previously participating in any aerobic exercise, were taught to roller-skate and then skated for one hour, four times a week, for 10 weeks.

“In every way--increased aerobic capacity, loss of body fat, reduction of stress--the results showed that roller-skating has effects very similar to sports like running or cycling,” Selner says. The study, completed in 1980, also showed that roller-skating at 11 miles per hour (a moderate pace) will burn about 660 calories per hour, about the same as jogging at 6 m.p.h.

Roller-skating has a number of advantages over running, enthusiasts say. Because the feet are not lifted from the ground, skaters experience none of the repetitive pounding that often causes injury to runners’ joints. The unique outward pushing action of skating makes it one of the most efficient activities for toning the gluteal muscles and the outside of the thighs, areas that are affected by few other sports. And beginners can easily adjust the difficulty of their skating workout, adding to the workload by turning corners and moving faster, decreasing it by gliding.

During roller-skating’s heyday at Venice Beach the sport was blamed for numerous injuries, but if practiced under the right circumstances, injuries are rare, Selner says. “Frankly, a lot of the injuries at the beach were due to drug and alcohol use, to poor equipment and to the bumpy terrain,” he says. “Also, a lot of injuries are to first-time skaters, because when you’re going very slowly, your wheels have a tendency to come up, you fall backwards, you try to catch yourself with your arms and you crack a wrist.”

With indoor skating comes a more controlled environment, Fleming says. “The most common injury in our rinks is a bruise on the rear end. Outdoor skating is especially hard for beginners, because you have no control over the atmosphere or the condition of the skating surface. Outside, you never know what you’re going to run into or what’s going to run into you.”

Proud of His Scars

When asked about injuries, Feineman, a journalist who specializes in writing about fitness and health, proudly points out patches of scarred skin on his knees, thighs and shins, recounting with relish the mishap that caused each one. Although an abrupt encounter with a moving car diminished his enthusiasm for skating for more than a year, he is typical of outdoor skaters who relish their independence despite the risks involved. “I can’t stand skating indoors,” he says. “Why go around in circles?”

Indoors or out, proper instruction is considered a must for first-time skaters, or for those whose skills are a bit rusty. At most skating centers, including Fleming’s--Skateland in Northridge and Holiday Skating Center in Orange--classes are available for all ages and levels of experience.

“Ask for teachers who are accredited by the Society of Roller-Skating Teachers of America and you can be sure that they are knowledgeable and well-trained,” Fleming advises. Admission charges to rinks range from 99 cents to $4, depending on the day and time, and skate rental fees cost about $1. Group classes are between $2-$5 per hour.

Good equipment is also a must. At Skatey’s Sports in Venice, one of the oldest of the beach-area skate shops, Bob Lagunoff fashions custom-made skates that cost from $125-$1,250. Lagunoff, also known as Dr. Wheelgood, is an expert on skate engineering and construction who designed the high-rebound wheel for outdoor skating. Made of a resilient polyurethane compound, the wheel revolutionized outdoor skating by absorbing more shock and allowing skaters smooth, fluid motions on uneven surfaces.

“Our average adult customer spends $135 for skates and about $35 for safety equipment, which we urge them to buy,” Lagunoff says. “We also give two free private lessons with every pair of skates sold, because we want people to use the equipment properly. When people rent skates--and depending on the season, we rent out between 50 and 150 pairs per weekend--we loan out wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads free with the skates.”

Lead Skating Excursions

Lagunoff and his wife, Bonnie, both champion marathon roller-skaters, are the unofficial parents of the outdoor skating family. Every Friday at 7 p.m. and every Sunday morning at 7, weather permitting, they lead an impromptu group of up to 40 on a skating excursion starting from their Washington Street shop.

Also interested in roller-skating are skiers who want to keep in shape during the off-season. “Skiing and roller-skating use the same muscle groups and the same balance point,” Lagunoff says. “Skiers tell us that skating has improved their performance on the slopes.”

Adds Feineman: “Skiers are perfect for roller-skating, because they understand danger. They ski not for exercise but because it’s exciting.”

As Lagunoff rings up a pair of skates for Richard Alm, a financial analyst who has just moved to Venice (“I figured, ‘when in Rome,’ you know,” Alm says), into Skatey’s whizzes classical flutist Paul Fried, whose skates need a few repairs.

“I skated a lot in rinks as a kid,” Fried says, “and then a couple of years ago I saw someone flying by me at 15 miles per hour and I decided to start again. Jogging is like agony compared to skating; when you get into the skating rhythm, you can go for hours.

“I’m a glider pilot, and I think skating is the closest you can get to the freedom of gliding,” he continues. “You feel that you’re in the air, that there’s only a little bit of gravity connecting you to the Earth.”