Any good fitness program begins with a warning that you should consult your doctor to make sure you are healthy enough to handle it. Nowadays a fitness program should also recommend that you consult an accountant to see if your budget can stand the strain.
With the economy teetering and uncertainty being the key word for the financial and job markets this New Year, many people are looking for places to cut their budgets. Spending on fitness is one of those areas where you might find some savings, but there is no reason, especially if you live in Central New York, that you can’t find a way to stay in shape without breaking the bank.
Nearly 40 million Americans belonged to health clubs at the end of 2005, more than double the number of gym rats just five years earlier. Americans spend billions every year on fitness centers, fitness apparel, home exercise equipment, videos and the like. If the current recession lingers, and we have to budget exercise spending, will we have to cut back on exercise as well? Will these years be known as the time America grew fat(ter) and unhappy?
Fortunately, the essential component of any fitness program—you—still comes without a price tag. If you want to stay in shape, it’s possible to do so without shelling out ridiculous amounts of money. In Central New York, we have the hills and dales, and park and recreation facilities, to keep you in shape no matter what your financial picture. And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you have access to the expertise needed to safely and effectively build strength and agility without shelling out for a personal trainer.
There are two areas to consider when you think exercise: cardiac health and muscle fitness.
Natural high: Snowshoers at Beaver Lake Nature Center can rent the footwear and hit the trails on their own, or accompany a naturalist, who will point out the flora and fauna of a Central New York winter. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
The Beat Goes On
The single most important thing to remember about exercise and health is this: Don’t smoke. The good news is that, as the price of a pack of cigarettes goes up, the savings you realize from quitting are that much greater. There is nothing you can do that will improve your health and fitness more than giving up the evil weed. And it will give a boost to your finances. A pack-a-day smoker, at the current rate of $6 a pack, can save close to $2,000 in 2009. Let that motivate you.
For just about everyone, cardiac health improves if you elevate your heart rate for 30 minutes three times a week. You don’t have to be grinding out the miles on a treadmill or a stairmaster to achieve this benefit. Indeed, buying one of these machines can set you back as much as $2,000. Using one at the gym can cost you as much as $75 per month, or $900 on the year. Invest instead in a $200 used bike, $100 or so in a good pair of running shoes or a couple hundred dollars in a pair of cross-country skis, and you can achieve the same cardiovascular benefits, the joys of breathing in fresh air and bragging rights among your friends and co-workers.
Nothing inspires respect like casually mentioning your early-morning run while standing at the office coffee pot on a frosty February day. Your colleagues will act like you’re nuts, but behind those shaking noggins, deep down is respect. The little secret we’ll let you in on is this: It’s not hard to run outside in the cold. It’s only hard to get out of bed and out the door. It’s actually quite refreshing. (And running out in the cold feels infinitely better than standing outside on the sidewalk in the cold puffing on a cigarette.)
Fortunately, Central New York is blessed with delicious scenery, and much of it has been developed into parks in which you can exercise your lungs and limbs for next to nothing. In the city of Syracuse, Frederic Law Olmstead’s legacy of parks includes Onondaga Park (upper and lower) and Thornden Park on the eastern edge of Syracuse University. Both include a perimeter road that is close enough to a mile around and with hill climbs as well as flat stretches to help you recover.
On most days the roads are well plowed and you can make the loop around the park sitting on your bike or shuffling in your Nikes without slipping or sliding. Three times around should do it for most of us, but if you’re looking for a longer run or ride, you can spill out of Onondaga and chase through Elmwood Park on the South Side, or leave Thornden and head for the drumlins to the east passing through the Westcott Nation, one of the most runner-friendly neighborhoods in town.
Thornden Park has another advantage. Staggered throughout the park are a series of exercise stations that can help you do everything from sit-ups to arm and leg strengthening. You might want to bring your snow brush from the car in case the mini-outdoor gym has a dusting of snow on it. (Don’t complain. Doing crunches on a light bed of snow is far preferable to sit-ups on a bench at the gym that’s just been lubed with the sweat of the beefalo who just got up and didn’t bother to wipe!)
If you prefer a flat trail, there is the ever reliable string of parks along the lake in Liverpool, stretching from Onondaga Lake Park to Long Branch, and into Cold Springs. One way is about three miles. Hit the West Shore Trail for another five miles out and back.
If you want to plot out a path to run a specific distance, there’s a great service available online at www.mapmyrun.com. Just log on and tell them how far you want to go, your start and end points, and you’ll have a route to print out in seconds.
Not a road warrior? Consider snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, both low-cost ways to work up a sweat in no time at all. Highland Forest, just off Route 80 in Fabius, has 20 miles of groomed trails. Bring your own skis or rent them at the booth near the entrance (a donation of $2 for parking is suggested), and you can ski for hours through the county’s oldest park, across terrain many ski buffs compare to the Adirondacks. Adults can rent skis for $15 a day or $10 for 90 minutes; children 15 and under, $10 a day or $6 for 90 minutes. Snowshoes cost $3 an hour and $2 for each additional hour. Cross-country skiing is an even better all-over workout than running or biking, using arm and shoulder muscles that otherwise just hang around.
On the western edge of the county, Beaver Lake Nature Center also offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. You can choose from five different trails, ranging in length from just a half-mile up to a three-mile loop around the lake. The terrain at Beaver Lake is considerably more flat than at Highland, and the staff is happy to rent you snowshoes for $3 for the first hour, and $2 for each additional hour. For the months of January and February, you can participate in a free "Try Snowshoeing" clinic weekends from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Weekday snowshoe jaunts take place every day at 2 p.m. through February. Registration is required, so call them beginning at 8 a.m. the day you want to head out at 683-2519.
Still not convinced to hit the great outdoors? Then take advantage of two free indoor swimming pools available thanks to the city of Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs. A real gem is behind the Southwest Community Center at 230 Lincoln Ave. This underutilized spot features a half Olympic sized (25 yards) swimming pool that costs nothing and is available for lap swimming Mondays to Fridays, noon to 2 p.m., and again from 5 to 6 p.m.
Likewise, the city operates Valley Pool, behind Clary Middle School, 100 Amidon Drive, off the 4900 block of South Salina Street. It too is 25 yards long with six lanes of nicely heated water. Free adult swimming is available Mondays to Fridays, noon to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m.
Both often get crowded, so bring your patience as well.
Just up the hill at Onondaga Community College you can use their pool Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays before or after work for only $2. Lap swim is available on those days from 7:15 to 8:45 a.m. and in the afternoon from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The pool is closed during school breaks, so to be sure, call 498-2285 or visit www.sunyocc.edu.
The deep end: The pool behind the Southwest Community Center is one of two indoor natatoriums operated by the Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs. Regular lap-swimmers get in their free-of-charge exercise weekdays at noon and 5 p.m.
This is a great time to buy used or trade exercise equipment online. Web sites are teeming with such things as free weights, exercise apparatus and Bowflex machines. For some reason when people see another Christmas pass without using the Stairmaster for anything more than drying clothes, they decide it’s time to get honest and cash it in. You can find these things online for a fraction of their retail price, and start paying yourself back by feeling better for less.
If you’re used to getting personal training to help you exercise your muscle groups, but can’t afford it this year, there are resources online that can help you work out with maximum benefit and minimal risk of injury. It may not work for everyone, but for the motivated individual, pay a visit to www.freetrainers.com and see what they might offer you. Fill in a form and in seconds you’ll have a once-boilerplate exercise program matched to your fitness level and goals. The digital trainer can show you how to get there without exercise machines, and put you in touch with an online community to keep you motivated.
If you’re over 65 and have Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield as your health insurer, find out if you qualify for GoGetters. It’s essentially a debit card worth $650 annually to cover exercise activities. That can include yoga and pilates classes or membership in a health club—anything the insurer considers likely to improve your cardiac health and balance. Fewer heart attacks and fewer broken hips translate into fewer payments made by the insurance company. Take advantage of this plan; the benefit, now in its second year, renews annually.
Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield also has a Healthy Rewards program for some of its subscribers. Healthy Rewards can pay a family up to $1,000 per year for committing to undertake healthy activities such as exercise and eating right. For more information, go to www.excellusbcbs.com. Other health insurers are following suit, so if you’re lucky enough to still have insurance, check with your company.
If you really need a gym membership to stay motivated but are watching the pocketbook carefully, there are two lower cost options to consider locally. The YMCA of Greater Syracuse has a “26/26” program, which offers a reduced rate of $26 per month to individuals making less than $26,000 per year. Planet Fitness, which has locations in DeWitt and North Syracuse, offers access to basic exercise machines for as little as $10 per month. Call the Y at 474-0784 or Planet Fitness at 399-5222.
As far as staying motivated goes, most people find that it’s easier to get out and exercise when they’re in a group. If you’re a runner looking for companionship, check out the local running scene at www.fleetfeetsyracuse.com. The store itself, across from Barnes and Noble on Erie Boulevard East, DeWitt, is also a meeting place for runners seeking a partner of their own level and commitment to get started and keep running.
If you’re up for a real challenge, consider joining Team in Training. TNT is a major fund-raiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. TNT will provide you with a coach, a training schedule and teammates to support you as you prepare to run a marathon or a half-marathon in places as cool as San Diego or Dublin. The cost to you is nothing, but you are expected to raise a hefty sum for the organization’s research and patient services. Sounds like a win-win. Contact Maura Donovan at 471-1050.