New workout aims for gain without the pain
The way we trim and tone our bodies changes by the decade: Running in the '60s and '70s, aerobics in the'80s, kickboxing and indoor cycling in the '90s. In recent years, power yoga and Pilates have strengthened our cores and flattened our abs. Through it all, we got fit, but we often played hurt.
Now, it seems, we need a new antidote to the "burn" that characterizes vigorous fitness regimens. Gyrotonic, a machine system that uses weights and pulleys and the principles of yoga, ballet, and swimming to increase flexibility, seems poised to be that next new thing. Little known only five years ago, it's cited as one of the fastest growing fitness disciplines in the country, according to a recent survey by IDEA, the country's major fitness association.
"It fixes the bad things," says Kathryn Van Patten, whose Boston BodyWorks Studios on Newbury Street ushered in Gyrotonic here.
That may be, but when faced with a Gyrotonic machine, called a tower, the novice is likely to gasp at its ropes and pulleys, rotating plates and levers. It looks like a medieval torture machine, primly decked out in pale woods and leather. Yet the circular and fluid movements performed on the machine feel good, says Van Patten. The method, started as a floor program called Gyrokinesis that resembles a constantly moving form of yoga, was developed by Juliu Horvath, a Hungarian ballet dancer rehabilitating himself after injuries. In the 1980s, he began to construct machines that could extend the body's range of movement to strengthen and elongate muscles and increase joint movement. Master trainers taught by Horvath have fanned across the United States, Europe, and Asia. Tiger Woods is reportedly a fan, as is Gwyneth Paltrow, not to mention scads of professional dancers.
Natica Wickstrom is one of them. Although she's only 30, years of dancing had led to foot injuries that physical therapy, weights, and other regimens didn't help. But the Gyrotonic system involves the whole body and gives "tremendous flexibility and strength I've never been able to find in any other movement," she says. Wickstrom, of Wakefield, now works for a financial company at a computer for hours a day. She thinks the workout, which exercises even the fingers and wrists, can guard against carpal tunnel syndrome.
Although one advantage of the method is a lack of stress so that even the elderly can use it, classes can still be a workout. Beth Johnson, who teaches Gyrotonic in Marblehead and at HealthWorks studios in Boston and Cambridge, says that she finds younger clients sometimes shun it, thinking it's too slow or easy. But after training to do the arch and curl movements and coordinating arms, spine, legs, and abdominals, she says you definitely feel that you've worked out.
Denise Sklar, a trainer in Hamilton, says Gyrotonic starts out gentle and gets very vigorous. "People's bodies change really quickly," Sklar says. And adds Ellen Comerford, owner of Core de Vie in Boston, says: "If you do a Level 2, you feel like you could run a marathon."
But while the system may sculpt the body, it's not going to take off pounds. Van Patten and others recommend additional aerobic exercise. "It's good to do something for your heart," she says.
Like machine Pilates, Gyrotonic relies mostly on a one-to-one relationship with a trainer, making it more expensive than most group exercise classes. Boston private class rates are about $65 to $80 for an hour to 1 1/2-hour session. Some studios like Van Patten's have several Gyrotonic towers and offer lower prices for group lessons. Although Gyrokinesis classes are still fairly rare at Boston area health clubs, group mat sessions average $15 to $20.
The cost is worth it to Stephen Lang, who lives in Back Bay and develops real estate in Florida. A former college football player, Lang had gone from being a well-toned athlete to, in his words, "crippled up." He found that he couldn't swing a golf club, run, or do any of the other sports he loved. His physician said he needed a hip replacement, but first advised him to gain strength so that he would be able to do the rehabilitation.
Lang started Gyrotonic at Van Patten's studio last December, despite some trepidation.
"Reluctantly the big old football player goes to to a place where delicate ballet dancers train," he said. The results were quick and positive, and after a hip replacement last April, he's back to moving easily.
"I'm telling you, it makes you stronger," he says.