Test Drive: Posted: June 16, 2009, 2:25 PM By Karen Hawthorne, National Post
Getting into shape shouldn't be difficult: Eat less, exercise more. It's relatively simple, yet trying to do those two essential components of the better health equation is a challenge of mammoth proportions for most — myself included.
Since I moved from the burbs to Toronto and shaved about 90 minutes off my commute time to work, I decided to spend the extra time on the elliptical trainer at my condo gym — no, honestly, the thought crossed my mind, but I prefer a later bedtime and lie-in in the morning, followed by a dash to get showered, dressed and ready for the 20-minute drive to the office. If I'm up a little earlier, I like to remain in bed and read, preferably with a tea on the bedside table, courtesy of my husband before he bustles off to the subway.
I could go on with excuses, including my love of desk-side treats and snacks throughout the day, no time for exercise in the evening when I do things such as making dinner, reading, snacking, watching episodes of Weeds, typing away on the laptop, or snacking on a date with a friend. I do make use of my gym, but not consistently enough to see much improvement.
So why not try a personal training session? Not the drill sergeant He-Man type I'd witnessed barking orders during a former gym membership, but someone firm but funny and encouraging. And why not follow up an intense hour of training with a deep-tissue therapeutic massage to stretch me out and knead my terminal back-knots?
I headed to the north Toronto location of Shape Health and Wellness Centres, a facility that offers a range of health professionals on staff for a one-stop shop to better health. For example, there's physiotherapy, chiropractic, nutritional counselling, massage therapy and a spa to make your hands and feet pretty, too. This group of practitioners holds frequent "rounds" where client needs and progress are discussed, something similar to rounds done in a hospital by medical staff. The concept is reassuring, and I knew that I would be in good hands.
First up, a big welcome at the front reception by Zita, who had me fill out some forms and toured me to the women's change room with a complimentary towel, locker key and bottled water. I suit up, but leave my tattered weight-lifting gloves in my gym bag. I don't want to give anyone the idea that I have been training for years, although not with a deep level of a commitment. Plus, this place is too posh for those gloves. Toiletries, plush robes and sandals are provided and the showers have those wide rainwater heads to complete the spa experience. I plan to sample it all.
Katie Au, a petite and sculpted woman, greets me back at the front desk and we go to the large gym area — no buzzing fluorescent lights, but overhead skylights and some orbs hanging from the high ceiling for an upscale effect. A few machines and gadgets line the mirrored periphery, but the open space in the centre is where most of the training happens. I'm distracted for a moment by a woman boxing the hand pads of an extra-large-and-buff male trainer. It doesn't look easy. Next she's bent over on the floor, like someone mountain-climbing in her sleep, shifting two nylon circles with her feet.
Au is a personal trainer, a chiropractor and, most recently, an acupuncturist. She also has noticeably well-manicured hands. "Well, I think it's important to look good, not like I've just rolled out of bed. People don't want to see that," she explained. "Don't look too closely, because my hands get banged up by the weights."
I'm on the treadmill for a quick warm-up, then I inchworm across the floor: legs straight, you bend your back forward, straight from the hips, put your hands on the floor in front of you and walk forward with your hands, following by your feet. I'm already breaking a sweat. We do some lady-style push-ups and some forward lunges. She's carefully watching my form, making hands-on adjustments and, you know, smiling with encouragement.
Then I'm jumping on and off one of those half-moon balls, flat on one side but all use-your-core-to-balance on the rounded top-side. Not easy. Add in a weighted ball for me to hold onto and turn to my side while balancing on top — not easy, either. She demonstrates each move with perfect ease. But, then, she's been a conditioning specialist for about eight years and used to compete in springboard diving. I am a lump of flab compared to her, but I keep those negative thoughts at bay with my happy face.
We stop to do The Plank on a mat on the floor. That's a yoga move where you raise up on the balls of your feet and your forearms, keeping your back and legs straight, parallel to the floor. Au pulled over a mat and did The Plank with me for moral support. I'm feeling a little nauseous and we stop for a water break.
There's a tag game exercise with some plastic cones, weight-training using a pulley for the arms and back, some squats and more squats. I like the variety of exercises and the varied intensity — definitely a challenge and I feel as though I've sweated more and got more out of the experience than my own at-home gym routine of the elliptical training and free weights.
"Now, you may be a little sore tomorrow," she cautions. I ask about my areas that need attention; she talks about posture and slumping shoulders from my work sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen while mousing and typing. Is there a frail old lady with a hunchback in my future? "We can work on all those things," Au says. She leads me to one of the treatment rooms and "stretches me out" as I lie on the bed. She extends and moves my legs and arms slowly, so I can feel the stretch.
With a pause to change into a cosy robe and eat half a lemon-flavoured energy bar Au offers, I'm introduced to Kayla Schofield, the massage therapist who will work out the muscles that I've used, and make me feel like a million. Yes, I love a massage. All that's required is to lie there and breathe.
It's a divine complement to all that huffing and puffing in the gym. I'm on my stomach for the first 30 to 40 minutes, while Schofield uses her hands and forearms to apply serious pressure to all the dicey points in my back and shoulders, and adds long sweeps of the back for relaxation. She tugs deliciously on each finger and I feel myself drifting off, until the fiddle folk soundtrack seems to rise in volume and she asks if the music is OK. It isn't something I'd want to listen to everyday, but I'm good.
For the final 10 minutes, I turn onto my back for the neck and head portion of the treatment. Who knew we carry so much tension in our jaw alone?
We chat a bit about tips for healthy desk behaviour, including breaks, blinking, and standing and stretching. She recommends a vascular flush bath for my RSI-troubled arms to get the blood flowing. Using a double-sink, you fill one side with cold water and the other with warm, then submerge your arm in one and then the other, always ending with the cold water.
A deep-tissue massage is not just a reward for all the effort of a workout, it helps to rid the body of any lactic acid that builds up during the training. This way, your body can recover faster and won't feel as sore afterward, she says.
I'm so relaxed, I'd like to sleep over on the massage table. But all those shower and coiffing toiletries are waiting for me in the change room.