Exercise in Disguise
Fitness can be fun — if it’s camouflaged. Here’s how to dance, drum and surf your way to a healthier life.
Illustrations by Mark Brewer
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Growing up, while other kids played tee-ball and joined travel basketball leagues, I attended midnight release parties for “Harry Potter” novels and assembled insect collections to enter in competition at the county fair. In high school show choir, I once sent my dance partner’s glasses flying across the stage with an errant jazz hand, and, in a college P.E. class, I nearly broke my own nose trying to return a racquetball serve. I am regularly reduced to panting by the “Cha-Cha Slide.”
I’m not what you’d call fit.
But, on a sunny Thursday this June, I dug my Nikes from the depths of my closet and went to my first-ever workout class.
In a 45-minute session called Pound, I did lunges and leg raises to the sounds of Top 40 radio and mid-2000s pop-punk. I tapped out the beat with a pair of lime green, weighted drumsticks. I took a lot of water breaks. And, much to my surprise, I had a lot of fun.
Pound is one of many workout styles that the fitness industry refers to as “exercise in disguise.” The idea behind this brand of fitness is simple: Get you moving while tricking your brain into thinking you’re doing anything but working out. The concept has swept New Hampshire and the nation, and for good reason — it works.
Particularly for people who are bored, intimidated or just plain uninterested in a traditional gym, disguised workouts can be the perfect way to get you moving without feeling like you’re doing a chore. And you do get moving.
“They don’t know this,” instructor Diane Henriques told me after her hour-long hip-hop cardio class at Manchester’s VLD Fitness, “but I snuck 175 squats into that class.”
It turns out that a lot of very real exercise can be concealed when you’re grooving to Gloria Estefan — and New Hampshire is the perfect place to give this of-the-minute exercise phenomenon a shot.
A quick Google search — and simple common sense — will tell you that fitness trends, like most things trendy, tend to start in major cities. Pound got its start in Los Angeles, as did the well-known heated exercise Bikram yoga (once its founder brought it over from Calcutta). The internet gets a fresh crop of listicles touting the top 10 new workouts in New York every six months or so, because a city of 8 million people can sustain a workout market that reinvents the wheel with each new season.
But New Hampshire is no slouch.
Two of the hottest workout gimmicks of the current wave are an on-land surfing concept called Surfset and a tap dance fitness class called Sole Power. The rise to fame for these two trends has its share of big-city chic (Surfset hit its stride thanks to the ABC show “Shark Tank,” and Sole Power’s first classes were in a Broadway-adjacent NYC space), but their origin stories are rock-solid Granite.
Surfset’s founders, Mike Hartwick and Bill Ninteau, graduated from Nashua’s Bishop Guertin High School, and, while they sell their boards to studios as far away as Hong Kong, their HQ is tucked away in Manchester’s Millyard. Sole Power founder Aaron Tolson is a New Hampshire legend in his own right — you may remember him from the slew of records he smashed as a track star at Manchester Memorial High School in the ’90s before launching his professional tap career after college. He toured with “Riverdance,” taught at Manhattan’s Broadway Dance Center and eventually worked with friends in the fitness industry to create Sole Power.
“The idea was to bring tap dance to people that don’t tap dance,” Tolson says. “It adds a really fun element to doing a cardio fitness class.”
The buzz around Sole Power and its sneaker-cover taps was so big it reached the ears of Kelly Ripa within days. Barely two weeks after launching in January with national gym brand Crunch, Tolson was invited to demonstrate the class on “Live with Kelly and Michael.” He quickly sought to expand.
“My first thought was to bring it to New Hampshire,” he says. Sole Power’s first non-NYC classes launch this month here in Tolson’s home state at fitness and dance studios in Manchester, Franklin and Windham.
While it may seem surprising that the hottest trends in fitness have such deep New Hampshire ties, demographically, it’s not so unusual.
New Hampshire is one of the fittest states in the nation. When polled for the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 2014, only 22.5 percent of New Hampshire respondents said they’d failed to do any physical activity in the preceding month. On the other end of the spectrum, more than half met the nationally recommended fitness quota of 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week. (More than a third reported 300 or more minutes.) The United Health Foundation named us the fifth-healthiest state based on its health and fitness measurements in 2015, which puts us right up there with fitness meccas like Hawaii and Vermont and even higher than exercise-obsessed Western states like Colorado and Washington. At a time when the CDC claims that four in five Americans don’t get enough exercise, these promising state data points put New Hampshire in a fairly elite fitness echelon.
So it makes sense that New Hampshire would provide a strong market for fitness trends such as exercise in disguise and that startup fitness companies would link themselves to the Granite State.
Of course, fitness companies with New Hampshire roots aren’t new. Gym giant Planet Fitness has been operating out of its headquarters in Newington since 1992.
But Planet Fitness isn’t really the place to find exercise in disguise.
“This is truly a judgment-free zone,” Nancy Leary says while lacing up her sneakers for hip-hop cardio at VLD. She corrects herself. “Oh, no, I can’t say that!” “Judgment-free zone” is Planet Fitness’ trademarked slogan.
The Seacoast-based big box prides itself on reaching people who have never tried or who’ve long been away from regular exercise. They install rows of easy-to-use cardio equipment, keep the free weights low to avoid Schwarzenegger-style meatheads and promise that, no matter where you are in your fitness journey, you won’t be judged.
That may be true — but, by itself, it’s not enough to keep you coming back.
“There’s a whole generation that connects exercise to pain and work,” says Dr. Barbara McCahan, a professor of health and human performance at Plymouth State University. “We need to remove the mental, emotional and psychological barrier of ‘exercise’ and help people just have fun.”
“I think we, as a people, get bored,” he says. “We get bored of going to the gym and, let’s say, running on the treadmill for 45 minutes.” (This from a man who competed in two Olympic trials for track and field.)
“So to find a way to get our cardio in three, four, five times a week by trying something you never have tried — that can be exciting,” Tolson says.
And that excitement factor is exactly what the fitness-is-fun trend offers.
There are lots of places in New Hampshire where you can find exercise-in-disguise-style workout classes. They take place from Nashua to North Conway and in spaces ranging from one room to two-story studio complexes, but (with some notable exceptions) they all have one thing in common: They like to shake it up.
Moira McLaughlin has been a devoted client at Fuse Yoga & Fitness in Londonderry for the past two years, and she attributes it all to the studio’s exciting mix of options.
“When I first heard about this place,” she says, “it was through a person I happened to meet on the street, literally. We were talking about workouts, and she told me she had come here and described some of the things. I’d been doing this one form of yoga forever, and I was really bored. [She said], ‘Try this place. They have surfboard core, they have this’ — she named three things I’d never even heard of.”
At Fuse, McLaughlin says, “You never get bored because there’s always something new that they offer.”
Fuse’s owner, Nicole Detellis, asserts that that’s no coincidence. She keeps an eye on fitness trends around the world and incorporates whatever’s feasible — after licensing and equipment concerns — into the schedule at Fuse. For Detellis, the trend-setting places to watch are the West Coast and Central Europe. For VLD owner Kristin Weitzel, it’s Australia. From all corners of the globe — including, with companies like Surfset and Sole Power, right here in New Hampshire — the trends roll in, and studios roll them out.
Switch Things Up
Hand in hand with the excitement that keeps folks coming back to exercise in disguise is the field’s other major benefit: variety.
Coming into this project, I’ll admit I had little interest in variety. I’m both a perfectionist and a child of the generation that was helicopter-parented into 25 club presidencies from preschool on. If I’m adding another thing to my already-busy schedule, I thought I’d like it to be one thing, not a Rolodex of them. Focusing on one method of fitness seemed like the best way to keep my calendar uncomplicated and to indulge my perfectionist side by getting really good at that one thing.
On all of this, it turned out I was totally wrong.
Plymouth State’s McCahan explains that variety is a crucial tool in making a habit out of physical activity. As you survey your gym options and pull the trigger on a membership, you might be inclined to think that first step is the hardest. But what happens 10 weeks after you sign on? Whether you’re starting a new workout or learning a new language, McCahan says, it will take your mind (and body) six months to fully embrace the routine as habit. For people who’ve never had an exercise regimen or who’ve been away from the gym for a few years, sticking to a workout for six months is a daunting task. Half a year of the same class over and over again — even if you love it — is likely to become a chore. That time will pass much faster if you introduce a new activity every few days or weeks.
Medical science backs up the benefits of variety too. Dr. Dan Bouvier of New Hampshire Orthopaedic Center says that cross-training is among the very best things a person can do if they’re new to the fitness world.
“First off, the key is easing into anything,” he says. “If you vary it, that’s probably even better.”
Trying a new class every few days and rotating through them, he explains, can keep you on your toes and prevent the injuries that can result from focusing on one style too hard too soon. It will also help you address different muscle groups and movements. If you take a Zumba class every day, for instance, you may end up very good at cardio and body rolls but very bad at strength training. Incorporating the occasional yoga class for flexibility or barre class for toning can do wonders for improving your overall fitness level.
This is especially true of people who already have an established and intense workout routine. Exercise in disguise may be most appealing to those who haven’t worked out much, but it can be a valuable tool in the arsenal of elite athletes as well.
“The larger your large muscles are,” Bouvier says, “the better your stabilizing muscles have to be to keep from overworking your joints.”
Just like the ballet-dancing football players of yesteryear, savvy athletes these days are turning to the movements of exercise in disguise. In fact, it’s one of the few entry points for men in a field that’s vastly dominated by women. Ken McCarthy, co-owner of the Nashua and Bedford branches of national studio brand Pure Barre, discovered barre workouts on his journey back to fitness following a major surgery. He’d regained his running chops but needed a low-impact counterbalance to strengthen his core.
“When I [first] did Pure Barre, I was training for an ultra marathon,” he says. “It actually helped my running.”
He acknowledges a studio full of Lululemoned moms may not be the most comfortable space for a guy to work out in — “It takes a lot of courage for a man to walk into a room with 25 women” — but urges men to give it a try anyway.
“The more I’m in this business, the more I find people have those same effects all the time. I get [people] coming up to me saying they’re shaving minutes off their previous half-marathon time.”
So, whether you’re looking for a routine interesting enough to keep you invested in your first-ever attempt at exercise or you’re a skilled athlete looking to diversify your regimen, the variety of exercise in disguise is a useful asset. And hey, if you’re a guy, switching out your lifting buddies for a class full of ladies once a week will probably get you better advice on anniversary presents too.
Know Your Options
If, armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to give exercise in disguise a shot, then you’ll need to know what you’re getting into. Here’s a primer.
Among New Hampshire’s offerings in the field, there are four major categories: barre, spin, dance fitness and gimmick classes.
The first of these four types — referred to as “modalities” in the fitness world — barre is not for the faint of heart. This intense workout uses ballet-inspired movements anchored to a mirrored room’s barre to tone your muscles and push you toward the long and lean physique dancers are known for. You’d be wise to start with a beginner-oriented class for your first time or two, because, with its tough thigh work and surprisingly challenging use of three- or five-pound weights, barre is wickedly difficult. Having tried my first barre class this summer, I can attest that it’s almost unfair to call this exercise “in disguise.” When you’re belly up to the barre, standing barefoot on tiptoes and holding two hand weights in your outstretched arm for 30 seconds, you’re acutely aware that you’re exercising. But “plié” and “relevé” are much more fun terms than “leg day” for working those calves and thighs. For those who’ve sent kids to ballet or have distant memories of their own days as a mini ballerina, a barre class set to postures like first and second position is a great throwback to familiar fun — even if you do leave class with a yoga mat covered in sweaty footprints and a week’s worth of jelly legs.
Another just-barely-disguised trend is the mega-popular spin class. Make no mistake: Indoor cycling classes are a challenge. They count as exercise in disguise, though, because studios will do just about anything to make you forget how challenging your class is. Many spin classes around the state are done by candlelight. Following the example of cult-favorite city enterprise SoulCycle, these classes kill the lights, blast the music and create the illusion that you’ve left the studio. (New Hampshire’s best imitation, if you follow the brand, is Portsmouth’s Cycle Fierce, which replicates the experience right down to the stadium seating.) You’re either in a fit person’s nightclub fever dream, with a pounding playlist of dance tunes and hip-hop, or you’re transported to a real bike riding through real countryside — think regular references to hills and mountains and a strong thread of visualizing yourself in nature. If the club kid or mountain hippie vibes are too much for your taste, you can also take advantage of the literal disguise offered by the lack of lights. While a bandannaed instructor shouted at me to “GET IN THE GUTTER!” and “MAKE IT UP THAT HILL” in my first spin class this July, I found the cover of darkness a very helpful tool. I toweled at least two liters of sweat off my forehead, ripped my T-shirt off without fear that anyone would have to see my pasty-white stomach and took regular breaks while yelling out semi-convincing “yeah”s in response to my teacher’s cries of, “ARE YOU FEELING THAT?” You want disguise? Try pitch dark.
While they have their perks for even a newbie exerciser like me, barre and spin can seem intimidating to the first-time or just-returned gymgoer. A more beginner-friendly form of exercise in disguise is the dance class. Pioneered by fads like jazzercise and Zumba, the modern dance fitness industry includes nearly anything your local instructor can dream up. Hip-hop and Latin moves tend to lead the charge, and the music can range from gritty reggaeton to the latest single from Sia.
Dance fitness classes offer a dance style that’s simple enough for anyone to follow, but, for a greater challenge, you can also try a true dance class. Lots of ballet studios around the state now offer classes, from lyrical dance to African movement, just for adults. Moms who’d like to give their kids’ choreography a try are perfect for these classes, as are former dancers looking to get back into the habit of perfecting routines. Dance fitness is more forgiving, but dance studio classes will teach you technical skill that the fitness classes lack. I, for one, prefer dance studio classes. Spending an hour learning 16 bars of hip-hop choreography — an actual thing I did this summer — is appealing to me as someone who once spent a week teaching Lady Gaga’s “Judas” choreography to her entire dorm floor.
Think of it this way: If you see a Beyoncé video and think, “I wish I had the confidence to shake it like that,” try dance fitness. If you see it and think, “I wish I could learn that choreo,” opt for studio dance. Oh, and if you already have the confidence to shake it like Queen B? Try the next level of dance-inspired fitness, offered at several studios around the state: pole-dancing class.
Adding a pole to the mix tips us over into the final variety of exercise in disguise: the gimmick workout. Arguably the best method of all for forgetting you’re working out, these modalities distract you with the use of a prop. In the New Hampshire fitness world, the list of available gimmicks is long: drumsticks in Pound, strap-on taps with Sole Power, trampolines, yoga balls, on-land surfboards, on-water SUPs (stand up paddle boards) and, of course, the most daring prop of all: aerial silks.
With all of these gimmicks, you sign on for a quick class and get to truly pretend you’re someone else for those 45-60 minutes. In an aerial class, you’re a high-flying acrobat from Cirque du Soleil. In Pound, you can rock out like you’re (depending on your generation) Travis Barker or John Bonham. Sneaker taps will bring out your inner Gene Kelly or Savion Glover, landlubbing surfboards will have you living out your surfer chick/dude fantasies and trampoline classes let you step into the minds of the most fun people of all: kids.
Some fitness centers offer classes on portable mini-trampolines, but I’d recommend going whole hog at a trampoline park such as Launch in Nashua. These massive complexes feature wall-to-wall trampolines and are mostly known for hosting middle school birthday parties and striking fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. They also, however, hold adults-only fitness classes. Bouncing around on a trampoline for an hour, even when the workout turns to wall sits or suicides across the bounce field, is, without a doubt, the most fun you’ll ever have working out. I left my first trampoline park class this summer with a grin on my face that didn’t fade all night — even if I had nearly broken my neck a half-dozen times in the hour-long class. (Sorry, Mom!)
It’s All About You
No matter which modality you try, the good news is, it’s customizable. If you’re not comfortable cranking the resistance up on your bike in spin class, you don’t have to. If you want to up the ante in barre by grabbing 5-pound weights while your classmates all use threes, you can. Exercise-in-disguise classes will meet you where you are. According to McCahan, before we know it, that will be what all exercise does.
“The crazy thing is,” she says, “there’s actually no such thing as fitness. Fitness only has meaning relative to what you want.”
McCahan says that she and her colleagues don’t even use the term “fitness” anymore. They prefer “physical activity” — an inclusive term that has you covered whether you burn calories by carrying the baby from the car seat to the crib or by bench pressing 200 pounds in the weight room.
“In the ’80s, fitness was a certain bicep circumference,” McCahan says. “In the ’90s, it was lifting a certain amount. Today, I don’t know what fitness looks like.”
For me, it’s walking to work without getting winded on the big hill and fitting into that dress from my junior year of college. For you, it might be cutting a minute from your marathon time or climbing Mt. Washington on foot next summer.
Whatever your vision of a fitter you is, the current fitness mantra is that it’s okay to go for it — and when you’re ready to get started, exercise in disguise will be ready to get you there.
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