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You might have to stretch yourself to get used to online fitness classes, but you’ll warm up quickly

I WAS MID-WORKOUT, rubbing my aching shoulders during my 20 to 30 seconds of permitted rest. I had already done at least 10 rounds of push presses, thrusters and front squats with my 26-pound kettlebell. It felt heavier than 26 pounds.

I squinted at the timer my coach held up to the screen on her Zoom square. Hands on hips, I eyed my black kettlebell, with its blue stripes, sitting on my deck. I was tired. I debated whether I could do more sets.

The Backstory: Staying in to work out has made itself right at home

Was my coach, Vanessa, paying attention to me? She had plenty of distraction, with six other squares of people working out.

Which, of course, was the moment she called out: “Nicole, come on. Pick it up!”

I sighed. I might have cursed under my breath. I grabbed the handle and pushed through another set.

Had I been working out to a pretaped class, I definitely would have fast-forwarded through this part. I might not have made it this far. When it comes to an intense workout, I need giant doses of positive reinforcement to keep going. Fortunately, Vanessa has that gene in spades.

“Nice, Nicole!” she said. “You got it, Liz!” “Good job, Eric!”

After class, one student thanked her for cheering us on.

“It’s just like fitness television,” she said, smiling.

https://www.seattletimes.com/Recording herself for her CrossFit class, Nicole Tsong stretches before the start of a workout. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Recording herself for her CrossFit class, Nicole Tsong stretches before the start of a workout. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

I WALK OUT my front door every day to reach my 4 miles-plus walking goal; I never thought I would do intense workouts at home. I can do yoga on my own at home, and I never do. I have worked from home for years. In the evening, heading out to the gym or the yoga studio was my no-fail transition out of work mode and back to myself.

Then COVID-19 arrived in the Seattle area, closing down my gym and yoga studios, along with many other businesses in the city. When it happened, I didn’t know how to handle the sudden change: How would I function without classes? I wanted to be on the lifting platform, not CrossFitting at home. I wanted to practice yoga with a teacher, not on my own.

I wasn’t sure about this at-home fitness thing, but like so many, I was about to get a swift lesson in flexibility.

The sudden shift woke me up to a change that had been happening for years: Fitness and movement already were thriving in people’s homes. Driven by the ease of technology, ever-increasing snarls of traffic and the general state of busy for people with calendars stacked end to end every day, people have chosen to get their movement in their living room or garage gym.

Rather than driving the 30 minutes or more to and from a gym, not including the hourlong workout itself, people moved to on-demand videos, from free classes on YouTube to subscription-based websites featuring yoga and barre teachers or trainers filming in gorgeous, airy spaces. Some made the expensive decision to buy a Peloton bike and take indoor cycling classes at home, with hard-hitting trainers shouting encouragement from the screen. Fitness brands kept you engaged with aspirational visuals, a constant stream of new classes and online communities to stay connected with other people taking the same class.

A few months into 2020, those brands looked brilliant. Prescient.

I’ve taken filmed classes before and struggled. While they got my blood flowing, I often found myself stopping and staring at the instructors as they demonstrated a move. I sometimes fast-forwarded through sections I didn’t like. I got bored by the same drills, the same cues, the same jokes. No one kept me accountable to taking the class all the way through.

https://www.seattletimes.com/Nicole Tsong precedes her CrossFit workout by running around her yard to get her heart rate up. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Nicole Tsong precedes her CrossFit workout by running around her yard to get her heart rate up. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

But faster than a 200-meter sprint, COVID-19 changed everything, and I had to adapt. It was shift, or be miserable. I was gonna have to yoga at home. I was about to take CrossFit in my living room.

As the fitness world hustled to catch up, it made one seismic shift I didn’t anticipate, the one that made all the difference — everyone moved to live classes. You could take your favorite teacher’s or trainer’s class. Not only that; those teachers were watching. They call out your name, keep you on track and help you with form, all in real time.

During my first Zoom CrossFit class, as soon as I saw my trainer and other people from my gym pop up on my Zoom screen, I was startled to realize I could do this. What mattered most — beyond sprinting around my yard, doing push-ups on my deck or feeling my legs in a long warrior hold — was doing hard, sweaty things with my people. I could see them, they could see me and we could talk. Conversations that once revolved around restaurants turned to recipes. Students showed me baby photos on screen, and I watched dogs lick faces in upward facing dog. I panted along with my friends at the end of a tough workout.

Not only was my community hanging out in my living room, but people also noticed if you dropped out of class. There was accountability galore. Because my teachers and trainers were watching.

Just like that, I was all in.

EVERY AFTERNOON, MY dog Coco and I meander through a nearby canyon, walking up the dirt trail framed by sword ferns and trees soaring up to the sky. On sunny days, the green canopy filters sunlight onto the trail. Coco sniffs after squirrels in the underbrush, or after dogs who have come before her. She likes a muddy side trail, where she can stick her head into the ferns. The trail is just steep enough that I’m breathless if I try to talk on the phone while climbing out. Bright-green leaves fan out overhead. We splash around in a burbling creek.

https://www.seattletimes.com/Walking with her dog, Coco, is Nicole Tsong’s fail-safe on those days when she can’t fit a movement class into her schedule. Plus, Coco is an excellent accountability buddy. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Walking with her dog, Coco, is Nicole Tsong’s fail-safe on those days when she can’t fit a movement class into her schedule. Plus, Coco is an excellent accountability buddy. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Sometimes, I mix it up and take her to Kubota Garden, 20 acres of trails lined with red and lime-green Japanese maples, fish ponds and tiny bridges. Coco leads me through the garden, choosing pathways up to a waterfall or behind a pond. She sniffs at giant speckled carp in the ponds, and trots across steppingstones or walks over bridges. We say hello to the gardeners.

Our walks are the one constant, the movement that I always have done from home. It’s comforting, reliable.

I put on Coco’s leash, and we walk out the front door.

It’s easy. Free. No trainer or teacher required.

For years, I’ve been a dedicated walker. I walk every day, no exception. It could be a rest day, or it could be a day with an intense workout, and I still get the 4 to 4.5 miles per day needed to reach 10,000 steps.

The morning walk is all business. Coco needs to get her energy out, play fetch or wrestle with her closest pup pals. For me, the walk warms up joints stiff from lack of movement overnight. It clears out my brain as I mentally prepare for my day.

Coco is usually itching to get outside again by lunchtime. The second walk is more leisurely, with the goal of getting fresh air, and digesting lunch, while getting in mandatory movement for Coco and, frankly, for me. The walks are how I’ve met many neighbors, out with their dogs, or waving at me from their yards. I watch the seasons come and go on our walk, from purple lilacs in the spring to rich dahlias in the fall. Rather than feeling like they are the same-old, I love the familiarity of the streets and our walks.

Walking also is my baseline and fail-safe. If I can’t fit a movement class into my schedule, I have walked. My body insists on it, getting achy and sore if I don’t get out. Coco also is an excellent accountability buddy.

More than anything, walking grounds me. By moving my feet, on a soft trail or the hard concrete sidewalk, I feel my body, I bond with Coco, I see my neighborhood and the people who live near me. I know it is good for me, and the real reason I do it? It makes me feel better.

https://www.seattletimes.com/Nicole Tsong does yoga in her living room. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Nicole Tsong does yoga in her living room. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

FIVE MINUTES INTO yoga class, I wanted it to be over. I wondered whether I could skip out halfway. I didn’t feel like slowing down my mind through deep breathing, as the teacher cued. I had things to do — a whole lot of things, including writing this story. Yoga felt like a waste of precious time.

I had tilted my laptop camera so my teacher could see my mat. The class was big, with more than 100 people. I thought to myself, “She won’t notice if I bail early.”

You have been here before, I reminded myself. You paid for this class; you’re taking the time to be here. You’ll regret it if you bow out.

Stay.

So I stayed, even as the teacher called crow after crow, an arm balance. I stayed when she held us longer than I prefer in balancing poses. I stayed and did the backbends, even when I was sure it was time for class to end.

I couldn’t fast-forward her. Her gaze, her cues, her eyes on the little Zoom windows with small moving yogis, kept me in my practice. I focused on what she was saying, and steadily worked on breath.

Suddenly, an hour had passed. I took a final rest.

I had done it, with a big assist from a live teacher.

https://www.seattletimes.com/Nicole Tsong works out live on her deck with her CrossFit community. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Nicole Tsong works out live on her deck with her CrossFit community. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

IF YOU ASKED me before COVID-19 why I didn’t take online classes at home, I probably would have said they aren’t motivating. It was easier to get in the car, even if it meant getting into traffic. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, whether it was a plank or a 400-meter run, and hold me to it.

Once I took classes at home, I realized what got me in my car — my people. I loved chatting with lifters or other gym members as I laced up my red-and-yellow lifting shoes and warmed up my hips and shoulders on the lifting platform. We talked technique and training, chatted about a new restaurant that opened nearby or got updates on kids. At the yoga studio, I exclaimed over new grandbabies or made plans to take a fun dance class.

With my friends and students, I got to move my body, clear my head and feel strong. They did it alongside me, and we all felt better together.

In the live classes, I get all of those things, from home. Every time I hop on for a class, I never know who will be there. We discuss the equipment we have at home for the workout. We have chosen odd objects for weights, including our dogs. At 70 pounds, Coco is the heaviest weight I’ve lifted in a while.

Suddenly, taking a class at home became something I liked a little too much. My community and teachers — who once got me through traffic — were now here, in my living room or on my back deck on my laptop. I had the accountability, the cheering, the workout and the community.

I also had a precious new commodity — time. I love that I can decide 10 minutes before a class starts whether I’m taking it. When I am a sweaty panting mess, I can go straight to the kitchen for a snack. When it’s sunny outside, I work out on my deck. I’ve made new friends in CrossFit classes. I’ve taken yoga classes from teacher friends in Utah, Texas and New York. I get a glimpse into the living rooms of my yoga students, see their pets or kids, and have felt even closer to them.

https://www.seattletimes.com/Nicole Tsong laughs with members of her CrossFit class after finishing their at-home workout. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Nicole Tsong laughs with members of her CrossFit class after finishing their at-home workout. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Sure, I miss equipment, particularly the bars and weights required for Olympic lifting. I would like to do some pullups, not just push-ups. I’m a little tired of moving mats and my one kettlebell around the house. I miss hugging my friends at the yoga studio. I miss the casual conversations that happened in the five minutes before class and the commiserating that happens after a particularly tough CrossFit class. I haven’t seen some of my regular CrossFit friends, who don’t work out at the same time as I do. I will be excited to go back to the gym and Olympic lift again.

But something bigger changed in the weeks and months that I worked out from home. I saw that I could get almost everything I loved about my gym or studios at home. I saw how easy it was to stay connected to my people. I realized I was even more adaptable than I gave myself credit for.

I also realized I had done a full reversal. Working out from home is not just an option any more; it’s now part of life. I won’t be bailing now.

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