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Fitness alfresco's place in the sun

Outdoor classes blend exercise with fresh air and a view. Gyms pale next to seaside skating, courtyard Spinning and parkland dancing.

June 28, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

On a recent warm, breezy evening, the sounds of Latin salsa music waft over Douglas Park in Santa Monica. About a dozen men and women, divided into pairs, concentrate on a step-turn combination that's challenging enough to make them sweat but enjoyable enough that they may forget they're exercising.

Despite copious days of enviable weather, working out within four walls is how many people in Southern California think of getting in shape. But the lure of warm weather is finding typically gym-bound types venturing outside to take advantage of outdoor exercise classes, usually held mornings and evenings.

Trainer Marco Reed got hooked on salsa dancing five years ago and decided to introduce it last year to his clients, many of whom were used to laboring indoors on cardio and weight machines. Dancing outside, he says, "definitely adds to the enjoyment. In gyms, people get bored and claustrophobic. I thought it would be ideal to be outside, when the sun's going down, there's fresh air and a lot of room." The atmosphere reminds Reed of European plazas where locals come to gather in the evening.

Reed offers beginning and intermediate classes, which start with simple steps and progress to more complicated turns and combinations that, when done repeatedly, provide cardio benefits. Proper posture, aided by strong core muscles, is emphasized. Reed occasionally interrupts the class to let his students know approximately how many calories they've burned so far.

Bryant Koh finds the alfresco classes both a complement and welcome alternative to his jujitsu practice and regular gym workouts. "I'm mostly indoors," the Santa Monica chiropractor says. "I rock climb, but not that often. This is the one outdoor activity I do on a regular basis."

As the sun begins to rise in Pasadena, students in Daniel Torres' Boot Camp class are already jogging to a local park. Torres, a fitness manager at Equinox, says the outdoor venue allows for things that can't be done in a small classroom, such as sprinting drills, broad jumps and relay races. "The environment is invigorating," he says. "You have the air, the birds, the light -- it gives you something else to think about. People tend to come alive when they're outside, and they almost don't realize they're working out."

Santa Monica beach is the setting for Debbie Merrill's Skate Great USA classes, where adults, children and families come to learn the intricacies of in-line skating in a picturesque setting.

"People want to take advantage of the fabulous opportunity to be at the beach," says Merrill, a former figure skater whose lean, muscular body is a testament to the fitness benefits of skating. "Here your view is the ocean and the sky, and that puts you in a good mood. All the craziness you have to think about is gone."

Despite the scenic location, classes are serious business, focusing on the proper way to fall, proper body alignment and balance. Skating develops core muscles and is touted as a great lower-body workout, concentrating on quadriceps, gluteus muscles, calves and hamstrings.

Rob Jacobs, a Santa Monica restaurant owner, had done Merrill's program previously, but re-upped to take classes with his 5-year-old daughter, Halle. What he gets from this is something he doesn't always find in the gym -- fun.

"I want to be able to get a workout and enjoy the outdoors and climate in Southern California, as opposed to being cooped up," he says. "I like the sense of the motion and the world going by. It's a more rewarding and stimulating experience. I feel like I'm living life more."

Kendell Hogan discovered that bringing classes outside provided a social component members weren't always finding inside Crunch West Hollywood. Hogan, the gym's regional group fitness director, noticed students rushing in and out of aerobics classes without even acknowledging the person next to them. But offering a lively, outdoor team sport -- in the form of dodge ball -- seems to have changed all that.

The classes, now in their third week, attract up to 50 people who gather at a local park that can accommodate a rowdy game better than a small aerobics room could. It draws a mixed demographic that seems to be getting the hang of the teamwork thing. "I see people asking each other if they're coming back next week," Hogan says, noting that the camaraderie that develops among the players may also create bonds back at the gym. "It's creating a more friendly environment."

It's also attracting people who slack off from their workouts over the summer. After dodge ball ends, beach volleyball kicks in. Plans are also in place for a marathon outdoor Spinning class, with bikes parked in the gym complex's open courtyard and participants entertained by a live DJ. He adds that in all outdoor classes, teachers emphasize wearing sunscreen and drinking water.

"When people are at the beach they're not going to say, 'Gosh, I have to catch my Spin class,' " Hogan says. "So we thought, 'If we're outside, let's take the gym to them.' "

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