Shape Up Slowly, or the New Year Could Be a Pain

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Schlosberg is a Canoga Park writer

All year long, Guy Ditmars works hard to sell health club memberships, but in January, his job becomes easier than a 10-pound bench press.

"Everybody makes a New Year's resolution that they're going to get in shape," says Ditmars, a membership counselor at L. A. Workout for Fitness in Woodland Hills. "They're just laying down to enroll. You don't have to involve much salesmanship."

This time of year, however, fitness professionals face a tougher task: persuading overzealous exercisers that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't built in a day.

"I don't pull punches with people," Ditmars says. "People didn't get out of shape overnight, and they're not going to get in shape overnight."

Still, many try. Despite warnings to start slowly, experts say, people flock to the tennis courts, health clubs and ski slopes with unrealistic expectations. They often leave with muscle strains, stress fractures, tendinitis and back problems.

"People who haven't worked out in years want to look like Charles Atlas and Christie Brinkley," says William Updyke, a Canoga Park chiropractor. "They overdo it at first and hurt themselves and, in trying to recover from the injury, they make it worse."

Many end up quitting because of injury or impatience.

"They see the desired end result instead of all the steps in between," says Tina Schwager, a certified athletic trainer with the Southern California Orthopedic Institute in Van Nuys. "Their intention is good, but the motivation isn't entirely there. They don't have the time they thought they had, or they don't like it. A good percentage get injured from doing too much too soon."

How much is too much? For a person whose recent exercise program has consisted of laps around the buffet table, it will take six to eight weeks to get in decent shape, experts say. Beginners should exercise two or three days a week at a very low intensity. Instead of starting with a three-mile run, for instance, it's better to mix walking with spurts of jogging.

"For the first two weeks, they shouldn't feel like they're doing anything," Updyke says.

With each year, people need to become more patient with their bodies.

"The older you get, the tighter the muscles become," says Richard Ferkel, a Van Nuys orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. "It takes much more work to become properly conditioned."

Regardless of one's age, Ferkel says, it's crucial to set aside enough time for exercise--including warming up, cooling down and stretching--instead of trying to squeeze it in between other activities.

"It's like an appointment you have with a friend or business associate," he says. "You have to plan a week in advance."

And, Ferkel says, you have to plan a realistic program.

"There's no point in walking around feeling guilty. You'll get discouraged."

Instead of vowing to run every day this year, Schwager says, try running for a week and see if you enjoy it. The same goes for joining a health club.

"Don't rush and buy a year membership," Updyke says. "Get a free pass for a week."

At the same time, experts say, it's important to look beyond short-term goals--such as losing seven pounds--because meeting the goal can provide an excuse to quit exercising.

"You have to reassess why you're going to a gym," Updyke says. "Is it to live longer? To make a hike on the weekend in the Santa Monica Mountains easier? To feel better?"

For those seeking to look better, the first stop in January is often the weight room. Unfortunately, trainers say, many forget that it has been months since they lifted anything heavier than an eggnog ladle.

They try to hoist heavy barbells, but lacking sufficient arm strength, end up relying on their back muscles to help complete the lift. They grunt and twist and, instead of controlling the weight on the descent, let the barbell come crashing to the floor.

"The louder the clang and the more you sweat doesn't mean you're exercising properly," says Leann Marlier, a Simi Valley physical therapist.

Most experts recommend starting with weight machines rather than free weights and with training each body part two or three days a week.

"People start working the same body parts every day, but that's defeating the purpose," Ditmars says. "You keep fatiguing the muscles, and you don't see the results. And you get tired and burned out."

Cardiovascular machines such as the stair-climber also have the potential for misuse and overuse, experts say. Eager exercisers punch in a high level but don't have the leg strength to maintain the intensity. Instead of lightly grasping the side railings for balance, they lock their elbows and clench the railings, transferring the stress to their wrists and elbows.

Meanwhile, they look at the machine's computer and believe that they're burning more calories than they actually are.

"They need something to validate their experience," Schwager says. "The feedback said they burned a zillion calories, and they're sweating. It gives them a false sense of success."

Experts also caution beginners to take it easy in aerobics classes, which tend to be jammed in January.

"I've seen people who shouldn't be anywhere near an advanced aerobics class," Updyke says. "They're huffing and puffing, and their knees, shoulders and back are killing them. They get caught up in the class--it's fun and the music's loud--but they don't have the steps down."

In the wildly popular step aerobics classes, beginners often use too high a step.

"That can cause knee and Achilles tendon injuries," Schwager says. "There's a lot of potential to rob your body of the benefits of cardiovascular exercise when you add an intense level of coordination with something so high in intensity. You've got to be at a certain level of fitness before you can specialize."

That's what Eldin Onsgard preaches in his ski fitness class at Racquetball World in Canoga Park. Weeks before hitting the slopes, participants work on cardiovascular fitness and coordination in the gym--weaving through traffic cones, jumping off trampolines and hopping across the room on one leg.

"If they're off balance when they're skiing, they can strain muscles," Onsgard says. "A lot of people go out there and say, 'Yeah, this is a kick. This is fun.' And they're practically paralyzed the next day."

Tricia Blair, a member of Onsgard's class, learned that lesson last year when she took her unconditioned body to the slopes of Sun Valley, Ida.

"I was so sore that I was in tears," says Blair, 37, of Calabasas.

Ray Gray, a physical therapist at the Lancaster Sports Medicine Center, says he sees a lot of knee problems and torn hamstrings this time of year because Southern Californians are notoriously unprepared for skiing.

"It's an instant snow season," he says. "We don't have much advance warning."

Gray's center offers free ski fitness evaluations and advice on planning an exercise program, but few people have taken advantage of the offer, he says. Similarly, fitness trainers and doctors say new health club members are reluctant to ask how to use equipment properly. Many become injured out of ignorance.

"They don't change the seat height or vary the weights that much," Ferkel says. "Most people aren't even aware of what the machine's supposed to do."

Ditmars recommends hiring a personal trainer for a week, but not everyone can afford to pay $40 an hour. A good alternative is to seek advice from the instructors in the gym, although not all fitness trainers have the right answers.

"A leotard, a badge and a clipboard--that doesn't make them a professional," says Schwager, who recommends reading up on fitness before joining a gym.

Cautions Ferkel: "Many of the trainers are very knowledgeable, but some of them don't have a lot of experience and can push the person through activities they're not ready for."

And despite their New Year's resolutions, some people may not be ready--mentally--to begin any type of exercise program. Schwager said she can't stress enough the value of regular exercise, but she urges people not to berate themselves if they can't stick with it.

"It's OK," she says. "Just start again. Look at anything you do as an accomplishment rather than anything you don't do as a failure."

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