Health & Fitness

Get the Most from Your Health Club Experience

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Peak Fitness trainer Nick Dal Pra offers some suggestions for getting into a workout routine and sticking with it.

Nick Dal Pra, a trainer at Peak Fitness Sports Club, monitors Kelsey Gerard during a cross-training workout. (Christin Dunmire photo)

In high school, Kelsey Gerard got “lazy” and put on some extra weight. “I wasn’t overweight, but definitely not where I wanted to be,” says the Rock Valley College student. “I used to come home every day from school or work and just sleep. I never had any energy.”

So she made some significant changes in her life. First, she eliminated pop and other sugary sweets from her diet and lost 10 pounds. Then, six months ago, she joined Peak Fitness Sports Club, underwent an evaluation and started working out twice a week with trainer Nick Dal Pra.

Gerard started with a cardio program that included running. Soon she moved into weightlifting, before Dal Pra introduced her to cross training, a strength and conditioning program that combines a variety of activities. “I wanted to learn different exercises,” says Gerard, who works part-time at her family’s Rockford donut shop. “I really got into it.” In fact, Gerard lost 2 percent of her body fat in the first month.

These days, Gerard works out at Peak four days a week and spends another two days exercising on her own. She’s lost another 15 pounds and can dead lift 195 pounds. In addition, she plays in a women’s soccer league one night a week.

“Working out has changed my entire outlook,” she says. “I see the results in the mirror and it encourages me to go in there and work even harder. I’m all in. I feel awesome.”

Whether you’re considering a move to begin an exercise program, or have been a faithful workout warrior for some time, everyone benefits from a little guidance, when it comes to tailoring the right program for yourself and, even better, sticking with it.

According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, more than 45 million people belong to a gym or health club. More than half join to look or feel better or to lose weight. On average, most members go twice a week to swim, walk, run or lift weights. They also take part in low- or high-impact aerobic classes, yoga or indoor cycling classes.

Even if you reach your optimal weight, you shouldn’t stop exercising, says Dal Pra. “We’re in the gym for fitness and for health,” he says. “There are other benefits of exercising, such as improving blood pressure and cholesterol, dealing with depression, developing more energy, becoming less susceptible to disease, flexibility, higher bone density and burning more calories throughout the day.”

Despite good reasons for joining a health club, many clients will eventually stop coming due to a lack of time, energy or expense, family obligations, or a poor understanding of how to work out.

“One of the biggest hurdles for newbies is getting them past their inferiority complex about working out in front of others,” says Dal Pra. “They come in, jump on the treadmill, and then they leave. They don’t even set foot in the freeweight area. You don’t have to join a gym just to walk and run. You can do that anywhere. There are many other ways to benefit from having a health club membership. That’s where a trainer can help.”

Speaking from Experience

Dal Pra, who joined the Peak staff last year as fitness director, knows a thing or two about getting fit. The former Marine has been working out since he was a teenager, thanks to athletic parents who showed their son the importance of staying active. Growing up, Dal Pra participated in a variety of sports including football, soccer and wrestling. “My parents were enthusiastic about exercise,” says the Rockford native. “We always had a gym membership and a set of weights in the basement.”

Ironically, it was the movie Rocky III that led to Dal Pra’s decision to make fitness a permanent fixture in his life. “I was inspired by how dedicated Sylvester Stallone was to training,” he says. Dal Pra devoted most of his free time to working hard in the gym, where he created a new, chiseled frame. “I was never interested in competitions, but I enjoyed the training aspect of body building.”

After graduating from college with a degree in visual communications, however, Dal Pra got away from his workout routine. He joined the corporate world, and commuted to Elgin every day to work as a graphic designer. Spending 10 hours per day or more behind a desk left Dal Pra physically and mentally fatigued. In fact, for most of 2007, he didn’t pick up a single weight or even ride his bicycle, another of his favorite leisure activities. “I felt like I was always stuck sitting in one position all day long,” he says.

To shed the sedentary lifestyle, Dal Pra found his way back to the gym and, in the process, discovered a new career as a fitness trainer. He left his full-time job and became a freelance graphic designer, in order to spend time earning his certification as a trainer through the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA).

These days, Dal Pra couldn’t be happier. “It’s fun,” he says. “My biggest reward is not monetary, but helping other people achieve their fitness goals and objectives. For me, that’s more appealing than staring at a computer screen all day.”

One Step at a Time

Dal Pra says the first priority for anyone thinking about exercise is to establish a goal and develop a plan before stepping into any health club. “Know what you’re going to do before you get there and let the atmosphere dictate your plan,” he says. “Ask a staff member to explain each machine so that you get familiar with how each piece of equipment can benefit your workout program.”

And start slowly. “Sometimes the only thing people can handle in the beginning is their own body weight,” Dal Pra says. “Push-ups, pull-ups, body squats and sit-ups can make all the difference in the world before you’re ready to use any equipment.”

This is especially true if you’re returning to exercise after taking a long hiatus. Don’t try to make up for a six-month break all at once. “It really discourages you to go back the next day, or the second day or whatever your schedule is,” he says. “Wherever you left off, whether it was six months or a year, you were more conditioned at that point than you are at the present moment.”

Be prepared to work through the initial aches and pains that come with waking up those muscles and joints. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 25 or 50,” Dal Pra says. “It’s deciphering between the aches and pains that are manageable and that you can work through, and the ones that are telling your body this is an exercise you shouldn’t be doing.”

In the beginning, three days of strength training each week will be plenty. Be sure to gauge your recovery period. Some people require only a day to recover, while others need two or more days before lifting again.

Cardio, however, is a different story. “You can’t do enough cardio,” Dal Pra says. “You can do it seven days a week. Every day you take off, you lose a bit of your endurance. Whether you’re training for an event or just want to lose weight, you should create some type of program cycle and progressively work your way up.”

Don’t be afraid to mix up your workouts. Most people are turned off by doing the same repetitive exercises. Dal Pra suggests adding a walk or a swim into your routine from time to time.

“Variety works great, whether it’s running, biking, swimming or rowing. The more you do the same things, the less benefit you will receive,” he says. “If you’re on the treadmill every day, find a way to get out of your comfort zone by changing the distance, the incline or the amount of time you spend. And a good sweat doesn’t always mean a good workout. Heart rate is often a better measuring stick of a successful workout.”

Stick With It

Ashley Calhoun has been exercising faithfully for more than a decade. A seven-year officer of the Rockford Police Department and sergeant with the National Guard 135th Chemical Unit, Calhoun became inspired to increase her workout in 2003, when she was deployed to Iraq.

“There was nothing else to do but exercise during my down time,” says the Roscoe resident. “That’s when I started to notice a change in my body. I thought, ‘I like this.’”

Calhoun has stuck to a regular exercise regimen ever since. Last year, she joined Peak and started working out with Dal Pra. She works third shift, heads home at 7 a.m. for a few hours of sleep, then hits the gym to meet up with Dal Pra for an intense afternoon session that includes cardio and strength training.

“Knowing that someone is waiting at the gym helps to get you motivated,” she says. “A trainer keeps you on track. Nick knows my strengths, my weaknesses and my goals. A lot of people don’t know what to do at the gym, but a trainer will tell you exactly what to do. All you have to do is show up and pour your heart and soul into it.

“It’s difficult, but once you get into that routine, it becomes part of your everyday life,” she adds. “When you eat poorly, your body feels that. When you don’t work out, your body feels that, too. If you work out every day 45 minutes a day and eat healthy, you’ll notice a difference. It becomes addictive.”

Nick’s Tips for a Healthier You

Whether you’re working on a chiseled midsection or just looking to shed a few pounds for the summer, here are a few tips from Nick Dal Pra.

1. Drink plenty of water (64 – 100 oz. per day). Try drinking an 8 oz. glass before you eat.

2. Abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym. A million crunches will not reveal your abs without a clean diet.

3. Avoid bad or high-glycemic carbohydrates and keep carb intake low. Stay away from sugar and refined grains, and eat dark-colored fruits and vegetables.

4. Don’t avoid all fats. Eat plenty of healthy fats from foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, and salmon. Limit fat from dairy and avoid fat from fried foods and junk food.

5. Eat protein with every meal. Protein satiates hunger and helps build and maintain lean muscle. The more muscle we have, the more calories we burn, even when at rest.

6. Plan your workout before you get to the gym. Not having a plan is the same as planning to fail.

7. Exercise, play a sport or be active five or six days a week.

8. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) tends to be more effective for burning body fat than slow and steady cardio. HIIT can be applied to strength training as well as cardio exercises. Try interspersing strength exercises with cardiovascular exercises like burpees or jumping rope.

9. Calculate your calorie budget, or how many calories you need to consume for your ideal body weight.

10. Set realistic goals and deadlines. Know what’s possible and go after it with urgency.

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