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A cardio workout too enticing to resist

Who would have thought that being weighted down could be so uplifting?

June 20, 2005|Rene Lynch | Times Staff Writer

I never look for an excuse to miss a weight workout. The repetitive motion, the internal counting off of reps, the methodical breathing -- it's all a form of meditation. It clears my mind of stress and worry, and I leave the gym feeling both spent and refreshed, and looking forward to the next session.

Cardio workouts? Well, let's just say that on more than one occasion I've arrived at the gym for a cardio session only to turn around for reasons as flimsy as not having a towel or a water bottle. For me, cardio workouts are a necessary evil and, over the years, I've tried a number of ways to make them more exciting.

Outside the gym, I've tried bicycling, inline skating, tennis, swimming, kickboxing and running clubs. (One group ran along the beachfront, another ran on mountain trails.) Inside the gym, I've tried spinning and any number of ear-splitting cardio classes (why do instructors need to shout when they're miked?).

In recent years, in an effort to save time, my back and my eardrums, I've settled on using the typical array of gym cardio machines. But even my weekly supply of Us and People can't stave off the inevitable boredom I feel about 30 seconds into a cardio workout.

Looking for something -- anything -- different, I came across a weird combination: A cardio class taught on treadmills. And there was another twist: Students wear weighted vests and use light hand weights to add resistance.

I showed up early one Saturday morning for the TreadRide w/WalkVest class at Crunch gym on Sunset Boulevard. The teacher, Debbie Rocker, not coincidentally created both the concept for the class as well as the weighted vests we'd be using.

I was a little dubious as I put on a WalkVest provided to students. Sleeveless, with straps in front and pockets for as many as 32 half-pound weights and a CD player, it felt a bit gimmicky. Because I was a first-timer, my vest weight was limited to 4 pounds. I thought: "Four pounds? What's 4 pounds going to do?" Then I was doled out two half-pound weights. I snickered.

We began with a brisk warmup at a 1% incline. So far, so good. Over the next 45 minutes, and with an approach that might best be described as Tony Robbins meets drill sergeant, Rocker ran us through a seemingly endless combination of intervals: We steadily built our way up to a 7% incline, and then came back to sea level -- again and again -- all the while alternating our pace between short bursts of running, steady endurance walks and easy, recovery jaunts.

By cycling through these levels, I was able (or perhaps just willing) to push myself harder during the sprints because I knew a little respite would be just around the corner. I also had a newfound respect for those few extra pounds in the vest: Four pounds were plenty, thank you.

It was a sign of how hard I was working that biceps curls and shoulder presses done with those dinky half-pound weights sent my heart rate up eight extra beats per minute. At peak, my heart rate hit 169 beats per minute. (Normally, I struggle to keep in the 140 range. Guess turning the pages of People isn't all that strenuous.)

Rocker used her captive audience to offer a bit of philosophy: Workouts don't get you in shape for summer, they get you in shape for life and all its (7% incline) ups and downs. Instead of fighting and resisting life's challenges outside the gym, view them as mini workouts that make you stronger.

From her bag of coaching tricks, she pulled laminated placards imprinted with single words such as "Peace" and "Serenity," and randomly plunked one on each of the treadmills.

The lesson here? Success in life requires single-minded focus on one's goal. So practice by focusing on the word, walking to the beat of the music -- and nothing else.

Next thing I knew, the music had died down and Rocker was wishing us a good day. I moved my placard ("Prosperity") away from the treadmill window for a double take. Had 45 minutes really flown by already?

Interval training with added resistance isn't new -- high-end athletes have been using it for years to wring the most out of their cardio training. And Rocker's is just one of the weighted vests on the market. (She sells hers at www.walkvest.com along with training CDs, but other vests are available at www.target.com, www.resistancewear.com and www.performbetter.com, with prices between $70 and $80.)

But Rocker, a former endurance athlete who competed in marathons and triathlons, and, for a brief period, cycled professionally, said people trying to lose weight or struggling to get past a plateau can particularly benefit from adding intervals, or fast spurts of activity, into their cardio routines.

"Moving the heart around, with purpose, is key to weight loss," she said. Too often, gymgoers get through a cardio session with distractions such as TV or a magazine (like me), or jump on a piece of equipment and go as hard as they can until they're done.

"You've got to manipulate your training and your intensity, or your body will just adapt to whatever it is you're doing. When you get on a piece of equipment and go, go, go, it works for a while, but eventually your body will get used to that and it won't work anymore," she said.

Interval training may also help beat boredom, because the varying intensities demand focus, she added.

And that's a bonus for me.

It's too soon to say whether this new tactic will eventually become humdrum. And if it does, I'll have to go in search of something else. But for now, I can pay interval training the highest possible compliment: So far, no missed cardio workouts.

*

Times staff writer Rene Lynch can be contacted by e-mail at rene.lynch@latimes.com.

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