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  • Working Out at Home

    By Sandra Evans
    Special to the Washington Post
    Thursday, February 11, 1999;
    Page T13

    Debra Lee would really rather roll over and go back to sleep, but she can't. She's got a personal trainer coming today, so she must roust herself on this gloomy January morning.

    And that's the point. Knowing that knock will come at 7 a.m. from trainer Darryl Haley, a former NFL offensive lineman, is key to Lee's home fitness regimen.

    "That's the only way. If I didn't have that, when the alarm rings, I'd roll over in a minute," explained Lee, president and chief operating officer of Black Entertainment Television. "I'm not that disciplined when it comes to exercise."

    Debra Lee with personal trainer Darryl Haley Debra Lee with personal trainer Darryl Haley.
    (Tyler Mallory for The Washington Post)
    Like so many professionals in Washington who are largely office-bound during the day, Lee has vowed to keep fit by working out at home. She had joined a health club but never got there; she liked playing tennis but never found the time. Lee finally found the right fit with a trip to her own basement three mornings a week to work with a treadmill and weights. And in her case, she has stuck to it, for three years now, with the help of that knock on the door.

    Not everyone has the self-discipline to work out regularly. Washington yard sales are littered with good intentions in the form of little-used rowing machines and steppers. Some people need the oomph of working out with other people in a gym to get them going. Others get their exercise through sports, such as tennis and golf. And then there are those whose fitness regimen consists of walking from their car to an elevator.

    But a number of prominent Washingtonians do find the time and energy to work out at home, despite the pressures of high-profile jobs.

    If anyone embodies the image of fitness it's actress Lynda Carter, who gained fame in the 1970s as TV's Wonder Woman. Living in Potomac with her husband and two children, Carter has a full gym in her home, but she no longer makes it central to her exercise program.

    "I'm through with the grueling gym workout. I got sick of it, and it wasn't any fun," said Carter, who stars in a couple of movies a year. She does yoga daily and uses a Total Gym for upper-body strength training. But whereas she used to work out 2 1/2 hours a day, Carter now prefers to shorten her rigorous regimen and stay active through sports, especially biking. Unlike those who need the discipline of an unchanging routine, Carter found that for her, variety was important. Outdoor activity, whether on her own or with her family, "is life building," said Carter. "It's good for your mind and your spirit."

    Another home gym that's used less these days is at the vice president's home at the U.S. Naval Observatory. It was installed by former vice president Dan Quayle. The exercise equipment is still there, but the Gores "rarely use it," said Jennifer Devlin, a spokeswoman for Tipper Gore. Like Carter, the vice president's wife prefers outdoor exercise, such as biking and running.

    The challenge, for those who devote whole rooms to the endeavor or simply carve out space in their basements or attics, in the corners of bedrooms or family rooms, is to keep the equipment from becoming dust catchers or clothes racks. Early morning seems to be a favorite of those who stick to an in-home routine.

    To squeeze in his workout around a workweek of 70-plus hours, Stephen I. Katz starts exercising at 5:30 a.m.

    As head of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculo-Skeletal and Skin Diseases, which takes the lead at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda in promoting fitness, Katz knows as well as anybody the benefits of exercise. So does the joy of that knowledge make it easy?

    "It's always difficult," said Katz, who has his treadmill timed for exactly 36 minutes. But being able to go to his basement, where the machine shares space with a ping-pong table and storage, is more convenient than "schlepping to a gym," and there he can listen to '50s and '60s rock-and-roll to his heart's content.

    D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, who played basketball for Wabash College in Indiana, had to give up running and league basketball three years ago when he ruptured an Achilles' tendon. But with the resolve of an athlete, he stays fit anyway by doing stretching exercises, sit-ups and push-ups at his home in Southeast Washington three days a week.

    "I made my own New Year's resolution to do more cardiovascular activities, which have been part of my whole life," the Ward 7 Democrat added.

    Chavous occasionally works out on a stationary bicycle kept in a spare bedroom and still plays basketball and baseball with his sons. To deal with the erratic schedule of a politician, Chavous exercises at 7 o'clock--either a.m. or p.m., depending on which end of the day is less hectic.

    For Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent, a former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and a rising star among Republicans, shuttling back and forth between his Tulsa home and Washington makes establishing a routine a challenge, but he has different regimens at the two locales. In Tulsa, he keeps a stationary bicycle, a Nordic Track and weights in a finished attic, where he'll go for about a half-hour at a time. In Washington, he'll jog about three miles on the Mall, plays tennis and for muscle tone lifts weights in the House gym.

    Now pummeled by politics rather than football, Largent stays motivated by the need to let off steam. "Because of the nature of this job, if I don't have a chance to vent the stress, I go crazy," he said recently from his Capitol Hill office. "So I'm pretty disciplined about it."

    Americans bought about $3 billion worth of home exercise equipment in 1997, including treadmills, gliders, stationary bikes and elliptical cross-trainers, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The most popular piece of exercise equipment by far is the treadmill, with about half of the 6 million machines purchased in 1997 falling into that category.

    And how many people actually use all this fancy equipment? According to a survey in the February issue of Consumer Reports, only about one-quarter of the machines purchased by readers in the past five years are still being used.

    The one that got the best workout was the motorized treadmill, with slightly more than half sticking with it. Doing worse were stair climbers (27 percent), upright exercise bikes (36 percent), cross-country ski machines (39 percent), gliders and striders (39 percent) and strength-training machines (44 percent).The magazine also rated a number of treadmills and said consumers now can choose from several durable models in the $1,000 to $2,000 price range.

    "I have a [stationary] bike but never use it," said Patricia Mossel, executive director of the Washington Opera. When she went to a health club, she gravitated to the bicycle and decided to get one for home, but somehow it wasn't the same. "It just sits there in the corner. I keep trying to find someone to give it to."

    Mossel became one of those who bought and uses a treadmill instead, finding a spot in the basement of her Northwest Washington town house near the laundry-storage area to keep it. "It's not a very attractive thing," Mossel commented. "You wouldn't want to put it anywhere else."

    Some argue that expensive equipment simply isn't necessary for a good home workout.

    "You can strength-train with dumbbells. A jump rope is a phenomenal piece of equipment," said Miriam Nelson, director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts University. Rather than buy a stepper, she suggests walking up real stairs. Or use a regular chair or couch in your living room and slowly get up and down. Hold a door jamb and do squats.

    You can even start your fitness routine by picking up a couple of cans of peas and using them as light weights.

    "You can work out at home without much equipment, and you can get pretty fit that way," said Nelson, author of "Strong Women Stay Young" (Bantam, 1997) and "Strong Women Stay Slim" (Bantam, 1998).

    For those who do buy equipment, just where to put these big, bulky pieces of metal can cause a problem, because they rarely fit in with, say, French Provincial decor. Many folks try their best to keep them in some out-of-the-way place.

    But personal trainer Catherine Ferguson, of Fitness Pursuits in Arlington, suggests that people entering upon a fitness regimen spend some time thinking about the whole environment, rather than just sticking the machine in a dark corner somewhere.

    Painting a dreary basement room with bright colors, putting up mirrors or buying a nice screen to hide an unattractive machine can do wonders to create a pleasant atmosphere, she said. Potential fitness buffs should make sure lighting and temperature are adequate, put a clock on the wall and have a fan handy. Setting up in a room with a view is a bonus, she added, and music makes a workout easier.

    "It's worth the extra time to make it a little more livable," she said. "My husband plays loud rock-and-roll music during his workout, and the house just booms, but that's what it takes to get him through his workout. For the creature comforts, you want it to be a room you love to be in."

    Not everyone can afford the $35 to $80 an hour for a personal trainer to come over and get them moving or $1,000 for a treadmill, but there are alternatives. "If you don't want to spend money on equipment, go for a good walk," advised Ferguson. "There's nothing like a good push-up for upper body strength."

    For Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, working around food makes it harder to stay fit, but she finds time each day for exercise.

    "You name it, I do it," said Pouillon. At 55, she attends exercise classes daily in such activities as yoga, weight training and cardiovascular fitness, plus she walks between her two restaurants (the second is Asia Nora) and bikes or in-line skates on weekends.

    She also uses the dining room of her Georgetown home as an impromptu gymnastics room by folding up the table and putting down a mat for herself and her children. That a room dedicated to eating doubles as a fitness salon fits right in with Pouillon's philosophy. "Food is medicine for the body," said Pouillon, "and exercise is the same."

    Sandra Evans is a contributing writer for the Home section.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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