Fit to be Tried

Ditch the drudgery of your old workout routine…these Fairfielders prove that fitness IS fun



When the clock struck midnight launching 2012, most likely thousands of people in town resolved to shape up, vowing to spend hours each week running nowhere fast on the treadmill or climbing stairs on the Stairmaster. If history is an indication of what’s to come, many will throw out the whole endeavor by February because the new regimen will feel like torture or will not have nudged the number on the bathroom scale. This year, says Sarah Levy, the town’s health educator and head of the Fitness Council, tweak your resolve: “Maybe instead of telling yourself to lose weight and to go to the gym, your resolution can be to have more fun.”

Fun and fit? Absolutely, especially in Fairfield. In the past year, many new businesses opened in town aiming to help people sweat up a good time, among them Zumba studios, twenty-four-hour gyms, commercial swimming pools, and even a fencing salle. The number of gyms, personal trainers and fitness classes of one sort or another in town hovers close to 1,000. You don’t have to break the bank to break a sweat either. Hit baseballs for $2.50 at the Batting Cage, play drop-in lacrosse or soccer at night for $10 at the Sportsplex Field House, move to music at a co-ed fitness class for $4 through Parks and Rec or— Sarah’s favorite—strap on snowshoes, cross-country skis, ice skates or hiking boots, then explore town beaches, hills, rocks, woods, and lakes. Matthew Moran, director of the exercise science program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, trains members of the New York Road Runners Club for marathons. He says, “The key is finding an environment you truly enjoy being in.”

Mary Money — Stay Self-Motivated

Mary Money is skipping rope under a canopy of trees, winding her way down a long driveway and back. The weighted rope whips the air and slaps the pavement and Mary tracks the revolutions in a singsong tune. “123, 124, 125…,” she counts to herself, dancing her way to 150. A cold wind stirs alive a neighbor’s wind chimes, but the bright sun warms the chilly air, and so do the words of encouragement from Mary’s workout buddies.

“Way to go, Mary,” her husband, Dr. Matt Leonard, cheers, in between hoisting kettle bells on the lawn of their Fairfield home. Two friends shout their approval, weaving the words between breaths and grunts. Mary smiles, drops the rope and skips over to a homemade plywood platform a foot off the ground, the better to do push-ups.

Under a bright blue sky, as shadows of branches dance across their faces and a steady soundtrack of traffic plays in the background, this quartet performs a six-minute circuit. They each work the rope and the kettle bells; do push-ups, planks and jumping jacks; complete “body rows” on the TRX gizmo hanging by the beach chairs in the Money-Leonard’s garage. They finish the circuit with a quarter-mile race down Fairfield Woods Road, past the Methodist Church, the library and the middle school construction site. They tag the utility poll and race back.

Leonard, stopwatch in hand, announces the time as the friends return to the house, sweating, panting and high-fiving. They do the circuit again and again. And then their lunch break is over and they go back to their jobs.

“I feel great when I exercise with other people,” says Mary, an Ironman whose workouts number in the hundreds each year. “I feel energetic all day long.” Those friends help Mary train for triathlons. Until late November Mary and fellow triathletes were donning wetsuits, doubling and tripling their swim caps, strapping on their headlamps and swimming in Long Island Sound once a week before the sun came up. Some mornings, knowing that the folks in her triathlon club would be waiting at the beach was the only thing motivating Mary to get out of bed at 4:45 a.m. She also swims with some pals in Purchase before the workday starts (she runs her own consulting company, Mary Money, LLC—her main client is PepsiCo). Come Thursdays, Mary meets up with her friend Sue at 5:15 a.m. for a seventy-five-minute cycling class at Trifitness on the Post Road, which caters to folks wishing to run, bike and swim their way to fitness. Mary and her friend hop on their bikes and hook themselves up to the Computrainer, simulating a ride along real courses projected on the screen in 3-D. “And after that we go to Chef’s Table for breakfast,” notes Mary, who seems to mention the social aspects of her fitness routine as often as she does the physical benefits.

The same goes for her husband. Leonard plays basketball with friends on Friday nights in a free parks-and-rec program, and plays tennis on Wednesday nights at the Bubble. Sunday mornings he plays basketball outside in a drop-in game at Fairfield University when it’s warm enough, and the JCC in Bridgeport when it’s cold. And he runs a kettle bells class at his house for the neighbors a few times a week.

Fitness is a family pursuit; the couple’s son, Matthew, is an All-Ivy rugby player at Brown; and daughter, Liza Kate, sixteen, plays lacrosse and soccer. The whole family occasionally plays soccer with neighbors, too. Sometimes Mary and Matt play a rugby game or two on the weekends. Matt plays with three local clubs, The Connecticut Grey, The Connecticut Yankees, and White Plains Rugby Club. Mary plays on the U.S. National Rugby Master team. –Carol Leonetti Dannhauser

Ben Kelly — Bring In the Pro

Rugby was important to Ben Kelly’s life-long commitment to fitness. He built his personal powerhouse in Australia as a professional rugby player, and talking about it lights up his face. As the owner of the über-fitness club BK Athletics in the Sportsplex in Fairfield, he now helps people learn to pump up their fitness potential.

A YouTube search quickly leads to thirty-second to four-minute clips of Kelly lifting weights, doing pull-ups and squating weights the size of tires—all part of a competition called the CrossFit Games. It’s serious. And intimidating. There’s lots of grunting and sweating and Kelly’s Australian buddies crying out cheers and support in heavy accents. But Ben Kelly is quick to explain that he treats everyone who walks into his gym as an individual and not everyone wants to train for competition. He has seen people try to get in shape at another gym as a prep for his place. Not necessary, he claims. Before improvement, there is coaching and skill building; before that is a plan; before that is the all-important assessment.

“I’ll ask you questions regarding your stress, your weight, and I’ll take body fat measurements and talk about nutrition,” he says. Your reward is an equally intimidating health score; to him, it’s a factual figure. “We formulate a plan based on what you’re showing me,” he says.

That’s when you head out to the floor and go through the movement part of the assessment, checking cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, coordination, and strength. “I’ll say, ‘OK, show me your best push up.’ If you ask, ‘Should I get on my knees?’ then I’m already getting an insight about who you are.” He gestures with his hands while he speaks, but rarely breaks eye contact—seemingly enthused by talking about his passion for getting people excited about training. The whole evaluation process takes about an hour; though it “almost always is just a stepping stone for further study,” he cautions.

The point of the assessment is to prevent jumping to conclusions about a person’s fitness. “For example,” Kelly says, “I’m training an Ironman at the moment—a female—but she’s currently overweight. Why? I’m telling her, ‘You’re doing too much training, you’re ingesting too many carbs, you’re generating too much cortisol. So you’re retaining body fat, putting stresses on your body, and not giving yourself enough rest.’ ” Training is a balanced formula: type, intensity and frequency. The Ironman competitor for instance was advised to work on power and weight loss.

Once you’re on a plan, Kelly works on building a strong foundation with skill of movement. You’ll know how to do each move before adding weight. All in all, he says he’s developing trust with his athletes—important when you ask someone to push themselves during a workout and to change the way they eat.

Kelly studied sports science at Sydney University and has spent a lifetime building a global network of advisors, including James Fitzgerald and Dr. Jeff Drobot. Kelly is now harnessing the power of that network with a new initiative, which, for a fee, allows his athletes access to expert advice. Drobot is a naturopath, Kelly is the coach/trainer, Andrew Yarn is the chiropractor, and Jeanne Edelman is the massage specialist.

In the end, Ben Kelly says he helps “people discover who they are and help them look, feel and perform better…I’m a strength and conditioning coach who uses CrossFit as one of my training methodologies.” His enthusiasm and personal commitment to his own fitness resonates with athletes—both active and buried within. Here, it’s time to get serious and put yourself in seasoned hands. –Diane Sembrot

Lea Cervone — Turn Inward

Not everyone is drawn to grunt work. Some people lean gently toward strength. Lea Cervone is one such person. She’s a Fairfield resident, born and raised. “I went to all local public schools, graduated from Fairfield University with my master’s in education and currently work at Fairfield Woods Middle School as a paraprofessional within the special-education department,” she says.

As much as her life was shaped by her town, it was also nurtured by finding yoga as a teenager. “I was initially brought to yoga as a way to help manage anxiety,” she begins. “After high school I deferred my college acceptance because of a lack of financial support and planning. It was during this time that I started having panic attacks. I was the only nineteen-year-old vegetarian who thought she was going to have a heart attack.”

She started with yoga classes at Marleen’s Yoga Center in Southport and tried out a few yoga videos at home. “After class I noticed that I felt happy, in a calm sort of way. It helped provide clarity, so that I could formulate a plan for my future. As a young person, it was important to have a healthy outlet so as to not get overwhelmed with the challenges of becoming an adult,” she explains. It worked for her. Lea first earned her associate’s degree, maneuvered through the maze of financial aid, and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art history.

Lea fell off the yoga wagon once, as she focused on graduate school, fell in love and got married. Faced with the unexpected stress of being a newlywed, Lea, at twenty-six years old, found herself confused and overwhelmed again. And once more she found solace and balance from a reliable source: yoga. She took classes at Yoga4Everybody (Y4E) in Fairfield. “I was working for a marketing-research firm at the time and it was a priority to get out of work in time to make the 5:45 gentle class on Tuesday nights. Over time, my Tuesday night class turned into Saturday, Sunday, and Thursday classes, too. The more I did, the more I wanted to do,” she says. “Yoga gave me the presence of mind to abide with the ups and downs in my life without making any rash decisions.”

She is pleased to say that marriage is now wonderful and adds that her husband was “my number one supporter when I decided to begin yoga teacher training and remains my closest friend and confidant.” Now a certified instructor, Lea leads a Sunday morning session at Y4E as well as subs when she can. She also teaches at a corporate office in Trumbull and has a few private clients.

Heaping tremendous praise on the exercise, Lea says, “Yoga has transformed my life in an overwhelmingly positive way. There is no other activity that I participate in that addresses all facets of my person—mind, body, and spirit. I think spending the time to integrate these parts of my being help to make me feel more whole and more complete. That provides a sense of serene contentment that you can carry with you every day.”

She also appreciates the people she has met on the journey. “I never imagined I would gain an entire support network when I first started taking classes, but I am absolutely humbled by the amazing people I have connected with and now call friends.”

Ready to give it a try? The studio Yoga 4 Everybody offers new students a month of unlimited classes for $30, or you can move along with a yoga show on television for free. –Diane Sembrot

For the rest of us — Forgo Excuses

It’s a cold Tuesday night when tax accountant Michelle Velez grabs her gym bag and dashes out of the car in the parking lot at Sportsplex, heading for the Field House. She’s just in from the train station, returning from Stamford, where she works for Ernst & Young. Michelle passes a bunch of sweaty, laughing guys, dribbling soccer balls on their way out. Day and night folks of all ages play soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and more on the indoor field, renting out space for weekly gigs or paying a small fee to drop in and play with whomever shows up. While Michelle straps on her shin guards, she catches up with the other women who have assembled for the evening’s drop-in game.

On this night they range from a twenty-year-old au pair new to town to a regular from Bridgeport who shows Velez cell phone pictures of her brand new grandson. Following the chitchat, age differences seemingly erased, two teams of women race up and down the field for ninety minutes in pursuit of their goal. Cost: $10 and many hundreds of calories.

“I love to exercise with other people. Part of it is the social aspect but part of it is that it’s more competitive. In soccer, for example, your team is counting on you to race to the ball first,” says Michelle, of Fairfield, who has filled her fitness routine with modern jazz classes, yoga and a regular gym membership in addition to playing soccer two or three times a week. “In a class, if everybody in the room is doing ten jumping jacks, I’m not going to do only two. When other people are in the room it motivates me,” she says.

Next door to the Field House, at the Fairfield Fencing Academy, health educator Sarah Levey is working on her footwork. It’s hard to recognize her at first, though, because her face is shielded behind a big metal mask. “C’mon, Sarah. Advance, extend… then lunge,” her teacher, John Tejada encourages her, as Sarah dances toward him, propelling a metal sword in front of her. Half a dozen students, kids through senior citizens, are trying various simulations of the same movement. Tejada, a former national fencing champion and coach of the Fairfield high school team, keeps them going with a running commentary that seems one-third tips, one-third admonishments, and one-third stand-up comedy.

Tejada opened the shiny new club in June. Unlike many fencing salles, the focus here seems to be on infusing fun into the discipline. He blasts ’70s soul music during his “Friday Night Fights,” brings in free pizza and salad for the fencers and their guests, and is happy to loan newcomers gear and weapons at no charge to try out for the evening. In addition to a wring-your-shirt-out workout, it feels like a party.

“I think it’s great fun. And I like things that challenge me cognitively and physically,” Sarah says. She had been at the hairdresser’s one Saturday thumbing through the local paper when she saw an ad for an open house at the club. “Fencing was on my bucket list, so I ran home and told my husband I had to try it out.” Now she fences a few times a week, filling out a workout routine that also includes biking with her husband, tai chi at the senior center and the occasional spinning class at the YMCA. “I’m one of those people who maxed out at the gym. I find that different things appeal to me now,” says Sarah, who sets a kitchen timer to sound at her office desk each hour, reminding her to get up and move around for a few minutes. “I’m most successful when I do what is easily available to me. I think people should just start where they are and build from there. The key is to do something regularly and to do something you look forward to.

“People in Fairfield are very good about finding a way to bring their children where they need to be to play organized sports,” Sara says. “It would be great if we could all build play into our own schedules as well.”

It’s easier than you might think. One of the best ways to get started is as simple as taking out a calendar and penciling in activities that include movement and sound like fun. Enlist a friend or family member to join you. Maybe you can go dancing once week (whether in a club with live music or in the living room with the speakers blasting). Shoot some hoops (by yourself or with a buddy, or in the men’s free drop-in league at Tomlinson Middle School on Friday nights from 7 to 9 p.m.). Climb rocks (you can hike on marked trails for free at Lake Mohegan; or try climbing and belaying at Carabiners in Fairfield with other newcomers on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m.). Go skiing or snowshoeing (you can pack your bags and take a trip out of town somewhere, or cross-country ski or snowshoe for free along one of the Connecticut Audubon trails).

Sacred Heart University Professor Matthew Moran is intrigued by exertion and running performance. “I believe that to cultivate success, you need to create an environment where people are having fun, where you get social interaction,” he says.

He’s a runner. When he knows he won’t have a chance to get in a run outside, he zips himself into the anti-gravity treadmill at work, in SHU’s Life and Sport Analysis Clinic. He fills the treadmill’s bubble with air and gets moving. But you don’t need a fancy gadget to stay fit. “There are such simple ways to make changes each day. If you’re working in New York City on the sixth floor, maybe you walk up and down the stairs a few times when you go to your office and to lunch. Get some coworkers to do it with you. Having training partners is huge when it comes to finding success. You have a collective motivation to keep things going, and you tend to look at the gains as fun.” He concludes, “The key for lasting reform is finding an exercise modality that works
for you.”  –Carol Leonetti Dannhauser

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