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Relax, it's exercise

A laid-back approach to fitness may actually get you closer to your goals.

August 15, 2005|Rene Lynch | Times Staff Writer

COLIN KIM isn't the type of teacher who takes offense when students fall asleep in his class. In fact, that's the effect he's after.

By the time Kim's aptly named "Naptime" class comes to a close at 10 on Thursday nights in Hollywood, the occasional snore rises from a gym floor strewn with students all assuming the corpse pose -- that's yoga-speak for lying flat on your back, limbs comfortably extended.

Effective? No doubt. Afterward, with all the stretching, deep breathing and relaxation exercises, it's hard not to feel like a wet noodle, or a rug that's gotten a good shaking out. Most sleepy-eyed students can be seen stifling yawns as they make a beeline for the door -- and their pillows at home.

But could this possibly count as a workout?

Absolutely, said Kim. "This isn't a typical workout, but it is a workout. Sometimes you've gotta give your body a break."

Move over Xtreme step, Xtreme spinning and Xtreme strength-training classes -- fitness clubs such as Crunch, where Kim teaches, are making room in the lineup for classes that don't require at least two towels to mop up all the sweat. The counterprogramming might seem counterintuitive amid all the concern about obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

But, fitness experts say, sometimes less is more.

Gyms have long served as an active person's sanctuary from a hectic, fast-paced lifestyle. Yet working out can sometimes be a source of stress itself. In a world that puts so much emphasis on picture-perfect bodies, it's not a far-fetched notion. Even yoga classes can take on their own brand of extreme competitiveness. (Power yoga, anyone?)

When men and women feel anxious about not working out hard enough to get the results they want, or just can't keep up with the new, high-energy classes, it can lead to burnout and injury. It can also leave gymgoers feeling overwhelmed, as if they just want to give up, said Walter Thompson, a professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"The extreme classes are great, but they are targeted to a specific group, and not everyone can do that," Thompson said. He pointed to the highly structured workout routines of performance athletes: Although most work out daily, they rely on easy and moderate workouts to recuperate and prepare their body for more rigorous workloads. "It's absolutely beneficial."

What's more, he said, adopting a more laid-back approach to fitness may get you closer to your goal by encouraging consistency. Some people can't face the thought of a long, hard aerobics class after a long, hard day at work, so they skip their workout entirely. A kinder, gentler class can be an attractive lure. "And that is really key, just sticking with it," said Thompson. "The most important thing is to keep people exercising regularly."

That's a philosophy embraced by Lura Astor, who teaches a twice-weekly class at Equinox Fitness club in Pasadena called "Simply Stretch." It draws on a mix of tai chi, yoga, core body work and what she calls "body reeducation movements" designed to counteract hours spent hunched over a keyboard or gripping a steering wheel.

"People think, 'If I'm going to go to the gym I need to be running, running, running; lifting, lifting; and burning calories,' " said Astor, who believes that attitude is misguided. Taking time out to gently tend to a body that has been over- or underworked or is just plain tired is time well spent, she said. "I tell them that you have to create a balance."

Students say they walk out of her class standing taller and feeling relaxed. "I feel really great afterward," said student Tania Nasir, who has been taking Astor's class for about two months to help nurse a back injury. "I sense a difference in my posture, and my abs really feel it too. So you are working out."

High-end clubs like Crunch and Equinox aren't the only ones catering to this growing demand for alternative exercise options.

The Torrance-South Bay YMCA began offering a noontime stretch and relaxation class recently, and the staff was surprised to find that it was an immediate hit. The center will be expanding its offerings to include a guided meditation and relaxation class next month.

"There's really a demand here," said Jennifer Smith, the fitness facility's director of membership and healthy lifestyles. " ... Sometimes people think, 'Working out is just one more stress in my day. I don't have the time,' but they use these classes as a respite from all of that."

Laura Leppanen of Hollywood has expanded her definition of a workout since starting Kim's "Naptime" class earlier this year. A dedicated gymgoer, she had a workout regimen made up of "a little bit of everything -- kickboxing, body sculpting, weights."

She credits Kim's class with helping her to boost her fitness regimen by forcing her to take a break. "Instead of going home hyped up after a high-intensity workout," she said, "I'd walk out relaxed, focused."

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