Travel & More, Fall/Winter, 2006
by Matt Beam

It’s that time of the year again. The days are getting shorter, the air is getting cooler, and you need to get prepared … the autumnal battle between your waist and your wallet has officially begun: how will you stay in shape during the colder months while still avoiding exorbitant monthly gym fees?

“This is the question of the day,” says Edmonton-based fitness educator Marjorie O’Connor. “‘How can I set up something for cheap?’ Even though people seem to be getting more into fitness these days, there's always that question about the finances.”

The solution, according to the former Aerobics champion is functional strength training: a self-stylized multi-muscle exercise regimen that’s a perfect fit for those looking for an affordable at home workout.

According to O’Connor, functional strength training consists of exercises or “movements that can cross over into day-to-day living.” They emulate the integrated, multi-muscle and joint movements that we already do on a regular basis. “A lot of times we aren't picking up something that's the size of a dumbbell to put into the car,” she says. We are lifting a big box from the basement, the trash to the curb, or an unwieldy child into a car seat.

Who knew that, with a little improvised repetition, there’s a free, built-in workout at the core of our daily home routine? Because we are often lifting, pushing or pulling something awkward, we are recruiting different muscles and joints, and our bodies are getting more out of it than they would from a traditional exercise. So the next time you are taking the overflowing laundry basket down to the basement, stop and do several sets of squats while ensuring that your spine is straight, your abs are tucked in, and your arms and legs are doing the lifting.

For no-cost weight lifting, O’Connor suggests filling up pop bottles with water or sand. At one time, hoisting irregular objects like this was considered a no-no, but in functional fitness circles, it is de rigeur, especially if done in conjunction with squats. Still, it is important not to push yourself too hard and risk injury. According to O’Connor, you should be able to lift a weight 15 times comfortably, or with a just little discomfort. Do one to three sets, and voilà: you are done your work for that group of muscles for the next 48 to 72 hours.

One exercise that mimics a real-life activity is the push-up, which can strengthen your abs, arms, chest and back. Push-ups are tough since they can require us to hoist approximately 70 percent of our weight. This exercise is easier using a stability ball, the plastic, air-filled sphere used in pilates and other strength training activities. Simply lie flat with your chest on the ball, your feet on the ground, and give it your best shot. Because of its flexible, forgiving surface, the ball allows each person to do as much or as little they want in each push-up.

“I would say of all the mobile equipment that I suggest for people to buy for their home, the stability ball would be my number 1 pick,” O’Connor says. Another exercise she suggests trying with the ball is the squat. Simply place the ball against a wall, turn and slide it onto your lower spine, and then draw yourself toward the floor. “It's amazing how the stability ball puts people into position. It helps them understand the idea that you drop your hips when you initiate the squat. It enables people to get into the proper technique.” Once you’ve mastered this move, you can grab your water bottle weight, and upon each squat, do a bicep curl.

O’Connor also sees the value in any kind of exercise. For example, she believes that multi-gyms are helpful because they are “precise and simple” as opposed to the sometimes complex, multi-muscle exercises. One thing to consider, she warns, when buying any large piece of equipment, whether it’s a multi-gym, a stationary bike or a treadmill, is that you have to have enough space for it.

She also recommends several books on the market to help you learn the basics about your body, the equipment and the correct way to exercise. (See sidebar.) If you use videos in your home workout, she warns, make sure the on-screen instructor is a Certified Fitness Trainer, not just Hollywood star!

So find an activity you like, whether its yoga, pilates, belly dancing, or laundry-basket squatting. The key, says O’Connor, is keeping a “moving mentality,” instead of beating yourself up.

Reading List
Strength Ball Training, by Lorne Goldenberg, Peter Twist, Human Kinetics Publishing, Inc., 2005.

Strength Band Training, by Phillip Page, Todd S. Ellenbecker, Human Kinetics Publishing, Inc., 2005.

Pilates on the Ball, by Colleen Craig, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont: 2001.

Yoga Your Way: Customizing Your Home Practice, Cindy Dollar and Susanna MacKenzie, Lark Books, 2005.

Complete Home Fitness Handbook, Edmund R. Burke (editor), Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc., 1996.