How experiential fitness is changing the way we work out.
By Caroline Barlott | January 31, 2017
Working out is seen by some as a chore where the gym is your workplace, and the currency is your health. But the drudgery makes it hard to maintain motivation. As a result, many Edmontonians are incorporating experiences into their fitness routines rather than running on a treadmill to nowhere. These experiences often have an end goal, whether it’s competing or performing, but the journey is just as enjoyable for athletes as they gain new skills, meet new friends, increase their confidence and view their surroundings from fresh perspectives.
Aerial Work Out
An aerial artist climbs up ropes of silk hanging from the gym’s ceiling; her legs inch upwards like an elegant caterpillar as she forms a cocoon with the fabric wrapped around her body. She then swirls and unwinds herself from the silk as it billows behind her shoulders, reminiscent of wings. She’s working out at Firefly Theatre & Circus, where aerial artists hang from trapezes, ropes and silks. It’s just as difficult as weight lifting and then some, but you won’t find any weights in sight.
Lisa van Essen was intimidated the first few times she came to the space just a few months ago. But, today, she’s hanging upside-down from a low trapeze with confidence. “The work you do with this equipment is unlike anything you could mimic in a traditional gym setting. Lifting weights does build strength, but not in the same way as a functional movement like climbing,” says van Essen, who works for the federal government in economic and social development.
Get our Newsletters
Sign up for our free weekly newsletters:
“It’s a whole-body workout,” says instructor Mackenzie Baert, saying students are often amazed by how quickly they can progress and how much fun they have. Baert believes aerial fitness is part of a growing trend of workouts that are challenging physically, creatively and socially – physical fitness routines that people incorporate into their daily lives that don’t involve unused gym memberships.
The classes became so popular that Firefly had to move from a very small room shared with Phoenix Gymnastics to its own much larger space that accommodates far more equipment and people. Classes have expanded with plenty more to choose from and, every year, more students sign up.
It’s satisfying, says van Essen, to set goals and actually see the progress start to happen. In the summer of 2015, she worked as a firefighter out of High Level, so, in order to maintain her physical fitness, she worked out at a gym. But she says it was hard to stay motivated because beyond being fit, she did not have a specific goal in mind. With aerial fitness, progress is marked by the impressive leaps she’s made.
The first several classes she took went by so quickly, it felt like she hadn’t accomplished anything. But just a few weeks ago, she really started to notice a change. She could climb the rope all the way to the top and her massage therapist was baffled by the amount of muscle van Essen had gained in her back in such a short time.
Over at the FlyFree Movement office, 2J Pantoja knows what it’s like to see students progressing quicker than they expected. He sees it all the time. Pantoja is opening yet another parkour studio in the city – it’s the fourth gym run by the 28-year-old, and there has been a wait list for those wanting to take classes since the day FlyFree Movement opened four years ago. Not only does Pantoja teach the sport, he performs internationally, and has over 200,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts videos of himself doing tricks you normally see on the big screen. He’s hung horizontally from a bar on a Las Vegas train, swung from banyan trees in Maui and pivoted his body around a light post in Manila.
“I train anywhere and everywhere,” he says. There’s a crisp wind and layer of snow outside his office on this day, though, so the idea of launching off the sides of buildings makes him shake his head. He hates the cold so much he jokes it’s why he built his gyms with equipment that mimic outdoor architecture – so he wouldn’t have to venture out in the winter.
He instead moves a chair away from his desk, and jumps high into the air, tucking in his legs as he flips backwards. It’s as effortless as a handshake, but that’s after years of daily practice. “When I post videos, people almost always refer to what I do as talent. But they don’t see the progression; they don’t see all the hard work behind it,” says Pantoja.
Clearly, his students won’t be doing back flips on the first class, but he says many are still shocked by what they can accomplish fairly quickly. “When I teach, I show a small move, and many of them will protest, like there’s no way they can do it. Twenty minutes, they’re doing the same thing,” he says.
The physical benefits are clear – Pantoja’s clearly defined six-pack is a testament. But, he says, the psychological gains are arguably even more impressive. People see their confidence grow as they overcome physical obstacles; and they’re not just confident in the way they move, but in themselves as people. “There are parents who say their kids are so shy they won’t even speak in school. They come here and they’re the loudest ones,” says Pantoja.
Pantoja’s created a community of people who do the sport. Some of the first students he taught have been learning from him for four years and now they’re skilled enough to perform. In 2016, several students performed alongside Pantoja at the Canadian Finals Rodeo launch, flipping backwards off of trucks while fireworks rained down from Rexall Place’s rafters.
Up the Wall
The social aspect of climbing is one of the main things that appeals to Ian Dyer. He’s been rock climbing since junior high, when he attended a school with a rock-climbing wall that took up the entire back of the gymnasium. Climbing was part of the curriculum, and soon the sport was more than just a way to keep fit – it’s a big part of his regular routine and social life. He’s not alone. There are three rock climbing gyms in Edmonton, and it’s even garnered international interest, securing a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On a regular Thursday, the Vertically Inclined Rock Gym feels like a local pub, with many climbers greeting each other as they enter. Rather than arm wrestling after beers, they drink from water bottles and flex their arms as they propel upwards using small outcroppings as arm and leg footholds. Several people hang from some of the more challenging rock faces, their feet easily moving from one fake rock to the next.
A guy in his mid-20s enters the building and they both wave and yell. It’s Dyer’s climbing buddy, someone he met at the gym last year. No matter the season, they work out at Vertically Inclined, and when the weather permits, they often head to Canmore or Banff to scale rock faces.
“I feel like I’ve gained everything from climbing: really good friends, a really good hobby, even a lifestyle out of it,” says Dyer, who works as a technician for a home security company. But he’s even noticed a difference with how he looks at the places around him; the sport has given him a new perspective. His dream is to go to California’s Yosemite National Park, the mecca of climbing, and have all the days of his vacation take place on the sides of mountains.
“It changes how you visit places. People who go to Lake Louise, they just go and look at the lake. Climbers are looking at the mountains from different angles, the cliffs and crags. And there are always climbers up there too,” he says.
Dyer says that there’s definitely a technique that needs to be learned, and that the body needs to be trained to move in a different way than it would every day. The safety aspect is especially important when practising outdoors. People can climb in designated areas in the mountains, but it’s incredibly important that they have the right equipment, the right instruction and fitness level, says Dyer.
Walk on Water
For Sean Nickerson, who prefers to exercise on the water, safety is first priority. And he believes it should be for anyone working out on water. He’s been a lifeguard for over 20 years – and he travels to Oahu every summer to teach water safety there. He was also a national-level ranked swimmer and has spent much of his life around large bodies of water. He grew up mostly in the Maritimes, and later he taught safety and surfing in Australia. He was also a fitness trainer for the Canadian Forces in the summers in Alberta.
Nickerson started stand up paddle boarding (SUP) – which involves standing on a long board and controlling movement with a paddle – eight years ago when the sport was so new to the province you couldn’t buy equipment here. Instead, he bought an over-11-foot board from Hawaii, but had to keep it on top of his car throughout the year because he didn’t have a place big enough to store it. “Even three years ago, you could probably count on one hand how many people you would see paddle boarding in a year,” says Nickerson.
Now, the City offers a SUP class on Rundle Park, the Leduc Board Club rents boards on Telford Lake and Nickerson offers instruction through his company, Waterman 5. He operates off Summerside’s lake, where 1,000 people sign up each year for classes ranging from boarding basics to yoga on a board. It’s catching on internationally, too, with several people wanting to cross large bodies of water on a stand-up paddle board – South African Chris Bertish travelled across the Atlantic Ocean for charity just last month.
Even a warm winter day isn’t off limits for Nickerson. On this day, an unseasonable warm early winter one, he’s headed to the mountains where he’ll paddle with friends from Canmore to Banff. It’s a route he often takes with students; he’s done everything from one-hour excursions to multi-day trips.
Nickerson says those new to paddling should start small and work their way up – open water and white rapids can be especially treacherous. “People don’t recognize just how cold our water can get in Alberta, or the importance of a personal floatation device. Also, the river system has microdynamics – such as changing flow rates due to pillars – that people may not be aware of. Knowledge is crucial,” he says.
Those on vacation in Hawaii might think it looks fun to rent a board and paddle to a nearby island. But Nickerson warns dangerous situations can happen very quickly. Learning SUP in Edmonton provides the advantage of calmer and smaller waters. Nickerson is out every day during the summer, even during work breaks when he escapes out the back door of the Rossdale Water treatment plant and is on the river in seconds.
Preparing for Combat
It’s early in the evening, but it’s been a very long day for Matt Marshall, who works on a morning show for a local television station. He was at work at four in the morning, and then came home in the afternoon to spend time with his family and now he’s ready for his night job. He owns Marshall Boxing, where he trains people of all ages and skill levels in a sport he’s familiar with as a former amateur boxer.
“It’s always been such a challenge for me. I’ve always felt like you can maybe squeak by in school; but in boxing, everything you’ve done, everything you are comes out and is laid bare. That’s scary, but so fascinating,” says Marshall. “When you actually do compete, it’s like a celebration of the days, months, years of training, preparing, getting knocked down and convincing yourself to get up again.”
He sees students change as a result of the huge amount of confidence and strength they gain at his gym. Greg James is a prime example. At his day job as an analyst with the City of Edmonton, James is generally sitting at a desk, working with numbers and data. Prior to boxing, he’d never been active, and didn’t have any desire to go to a regular gym. Boxing appealed to him though, as it sounded more interesting than running on a treadmill or lifting weights.
The sport is very physical, and James lost over 30 pounds while gaining a lot of lean muscle. But boxing is challenging far beyond the physical – the mental aspect is unique in combat sports. And at first, sparring with a partner was terrifying for James. “Your first instinct when getting hit is to shy away. With boxing, you’re overriding your brain, which is designed to keep you safe,” says James. “But you do it in baby steps, so that you build up confidence.”
And that confidence has carried him far beyond the gym – he feels good about himself, and that translates to improvements in all areas of life. He’s even occasionally helping Marshall at the gym, and hopes to gain certification and take on a part-time position as a trainer.
There are about 50 adults and kids who take classes at the gym. Of those, 90 per cent, says Marshall, are boxing recreationally, while the remaining 10 per cent are looking to compete in fights. But even for those that are there just for fun, Marshall tells them to treat it like they will compete one day and he says many are surprised by what they can accomplish. For James, it’s certainly been the case – he’s now preparing for his first amateur fight that he hopes to set up later in the year.