Gyms Turn On the 'Exercise Lite'

More and more couch potatoes are begrudgingly heeding their doctors' advice and hitting the gym — and the fitness industry is ready for them.

"Chair dancing," gentle yoga and a flowing interdisciplinary workout called Neuromuscular Integrative Action are some of the classes being offered at gyms as part of a new movement toward "exercise lite" — or workouts for people who want the gain without the pain.

"What's happened is the demographic profile has changed," said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "Gyms now have to come up with ways to work with older, less-fit exercisers."

Many people in this category sign up for NIA, a program that combines tai chi, yoga, martial arts, dance and free movement.

Mary Jane Johnson, fitness manager for Wellbridge Co., which owns New Mexico Sports and Wellness, said when her company introduced NIA about a year ago, they weren't sure how clients would respond. They were pleasantly surprised.

"The classes started filling up right away we're at that point in the evolution of fitness," she said.

In NIA, the instructor suggests a movement, rather than dictating exactly how it should be done.

"Everyone does the move the way it's best for them," Johnson said. "People move at their own pace without feeling judged. It's great for people who are overweight and have impact issues."

Another popular "lite" class is chair dancing, which offers both cardio and strength training. The chair is used mainly for balance, but also provides an option for people who don't want to stand for 60 minutes or get down on the floor.

"Our oldest student is 85," said Ken Gunser, general manager of the Bell Plaza health club in Queens, N.Y. "We have others in the bad stages of cancer and some who have disabilities."

Bell Plaza offers chair dancing as part of Silver Sneakers, a national program for seniors that is offered for free through several health care plans.

The people who take Silver Sneakers understand that joining a gym can be intimidating.

"When people are brand new and scared, we always go over and say 'Hi, would you like me to show you something?'" said Grace Santamaria, a five-year veteran of the program.

Santamaria also enjoys basic yoga, which experts say is good for the elderly and unfit.

"Our Gentle Yoga class is not very vigorous, and it focuses a lot on breathing techniques," said Allyson Donnelly, regional group exercise manager for New York Sports Club. "It's great for beginners."

While there has been more chatter lately about making fitness accessible to everyone, the American College of Sports Medicine has been on the case since 1993, when they released their "exercise lite" program.

The ACSM realized the "no pain, no gain" attitude toward fitness was discouraging people from working out. It now recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity over the course of most days of the week.

Newcomers begin with 10-20 minutes of aerobic conditioning three times a week with 36-48 hours of rest between workouts, especially if they are overweight. Very deconditioned people may be more suited for multiple daily sessions of only 5-10 minutes.

But that's only in the beginning. Kathy Fuchs was a breast cancer survivor when she started doing yoga and now she teaches NIA classes in New Mexico.

"Yoga did it for me but NIA really did it for me, physically, emotionally and spiritually," she said.