Summer Fitness

Beat the Heat: Four Summer-Friendly Exercise Alternatives

Workouts delightful, even when the weather outside is frightful

By Kerry H., John Lomax, Katharine Shilcutt, Chris Abshire, and Catherine Matusow May 1, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Shutterstock

If You Like Running, Try…

Many joggers continue running outside in the summer, though they needn’t. “The only element you’re adding [outside] is heat and some terrain, and those things aren’t really beneficial,” said Kelly Spriggs, the co-director for sport performance at the University of Houston. “If you insist on raising your core temperature, you can still run in a long-sleeved shirt on indoors. Being outside doesn’t affect how much of a workout you can get.” 

Then there are the cardio junkies who go with straightforward replacement activities like indoor treadmills or tracks, such as the one at the Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA, which offers a nice combination of convenience and peace, surrounded as it is by views of downtown.

But if you’re looking to mix it up, a prime candidate for indoor cardio is rock climbing. “That’s an exercise where every muscle in your body is tensed at the same time," said Spriggs. “That in itself is very taxing. You’re not necessarily running and lifting a lot of weights, but having your body in that complete contracted state for a prolonged period of time means your entire cardio system is working nonstop.”

The most challenging rock-climbing regimen we could find is offered by Texas Rock Gym in Spring Branch. Its Primal Fitness program mixes cardio movements with gymnastics and weights, which breaks up the monotony of climbing. Several other area facilities offer indoor climbing adventures, including Stone Moves in northwest Houston and InSpire Rock in Spring.

Another option is fusion kickboxing classes, which are all the rage, especially those that add an element of dance, hip-hop, or CrossFit to the routine. “Something like that will be really beneficial because it’s encompassing two different things,” Spriggs said. “With the dancing and the kickboxing, you can add variety to what you’re doing, which will only burn more calories. You’re working so many muscles at the same time. It gives your body a good overall burn.”

If overall burn is what you seek, the “Urban Kickboxing” class at Inner Me Fitness in Montrose allows you to work on your endurance and improve your strength, aerobic fitness, coordination, and balance. Studio Fitness and Urban Jungle—both in the Heights—offer similar programs.

Of course, there are also plenty of old living room standbys, as Dr. John P. Higgins, a sports cardiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, pointed out. Among his favorite in-home exercises are resistance training, jump roping, lunges, jumping jacks, and running in place, complete with “high knees” every 10 steps. “During the commercials, if you are watching TV… just jump it out,” Higgins said. Also: “Lunge rather than lounge! Lunge instead of walk whenever you are walking down a hallway — for fun and fitness.” —Chris Abshire

If You Like Walking, Try…

Mall walking has become so prevalent these days, major malls have mile markers in addition to opening their doors early for the morning crowd. At Katy Mills Mall, which features a one-mile loop, you’ll see moms pushing baby strollers alongside power-walking septuagenarians. In the Willowbrook and Memorial City malls, colorful markers decorate two-mile courses. Memorial City is particularly welcoming, opening at 5:30 a.m. and offering prizes for mileage goals via its Health Check Walking Club.

Of course, the gold standard for mall walking is the massive Galleria, where the whole Houston tapestry is on display: everything from high-end boutiques and expensive art galleries to the skaters on the ice rink and people from all walks (get it?) of life. But it’s the Galleria’s 10,000 tons of cooling equipment that’s the real draw, ensuring that no one breaks a sweat inside the vast, 3 million-square-foot terrarium.

Mall-walking not your low-impact activity of choice? Try yoga. You may burn fewer calories (roughly 150 per hour as opposed to 300 when walking at 3 mph), but longtime yoga instructor Jennifer Buergermeister of Jennyoga Studios in the First Ward said that, like walking, “one of the beautiful aspects of yoga is there is something for everybody.” Even better? Yoga can chill you out in more ways than one.

“Regardless of what level of yoga class [you] take,” Buergermeister said, “it is excellent for reducing stress and changing the brain chemistry and neuro-pathways to become more calm, cool, and collected.” Her claims are corroborated by a recent study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which found that yoga had more beneficial effects on mood and anxiety than walking. Not only did yogis report a greater improvement in their moods over the 12-week study, their anxiety levels dropped over the 12 weeks. They probably giggled a time or two, as we do when the yoga instructor tells the class to get in the Happy Baby pose. —Katharine Shilcutt

If You Like Tennis, Try…

When temperatures at last year’s Wimbledon final reached 122 degrees, English sportswriters dubbed Centre Court a “cauldron” and called it the “hottest final in living memory.” In summertime, Houstonians call it “Tuesday afternoon.”

While there is no absolute threshold temperature that requires indoor play, Dr. Shiraz Younas, a Memorial Hermann pediatric orthopedic surgeon, said that staying hydrated is difficult in our Congo-like summer climate. “The body compensates pretty well, but the problem is if you overheat and are dehydrated at the same time, then you will end up with a heatstroke,” he said.

To get the maximum calorie burning and cardio benefits out of tennis, experts say you need to keep your rest intervals to a minimum. Clearly, these are experts who have never played an August tennis match in Houston, which requires more Gatorade time-outs than backhand volleys. 

Houston has plenty of indoor tennis venues, however, and you don’t need to be sponsored into a private club to play in them. Chancellors Family Center in Meyerland offers individual summer memberships, which grant access to the facility’s nine indoor tennis courts, as does Boniuk Family Indoor Tennis Center at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, also in Meyerland, which offers six net-enclosed courts with state-of-the-art indoor lighting. And if you really want to go to town, get a membership to Westside Tennis and Fitness, which sports four indoor rebound ace courts amid a head-spinning array of other amenities, not to mention a live capuchin monkey exhibit. (You’d expect no less from a facility owned by Linda and Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale.)  

Chancellors and Westside also offer racquetball, and many local campuses of the YMCA offer both racquetball and squash. While all racket sports burn calories, sculpt your core and legs, and make for great cardio, racquetball and squash do all that and fine-tune your concentration, reaction time, and balance. (And like tennis, they can be played in small groups or even alone and don’t require investing in expensive equipment.)

Benefits aside, Younas counsels novice players to be cautious. “More so than with tennis, with squash and racquetball you don’t want to rush into doing things,” he said. It takes time—and is important—to develop a working knowledge of the other player’s tendencies. “You are in a small court. Inexperienced players often end up hitting their opponent with their racket.” In addition, protective eyewear is an absolute necessity: “The consequences of a ball injury to the eye can be pretty devastating,” he says. 

Younas himself prefers squash, but advises the less fit to work their way up to the game via tennis and racquetball. Though they slow a bit on the rebound off the wall, those walnut-sized squash balls come hurling off the rackets at 150 miles an hour. “You need to be fit already,” said Younas, “otherwise you do end up getting injuries pretty frequently.”

But hey, for a fun, fast, and air-conditioned track to fitness, you can’t beat it. —John Nova Lomax

If You Like Biking, Try…

According to Ben Proko, a level two USA triathlon coach based in Cypress, summer cycling is not an activity Houstonians spurn. “Runners often turn to cycling in the summer,” he says, “because of the breeze.” Hmm. An early-morning ride can be enjoyable, but when the heat descends, many cyclists turn to the obvious indoor alternative—spinning. Define Body & Mind, which has six locations spread throughout the city, offers a Revolution class that integrates pushups, fitness balls, abdominals, and arm work, bringing strength training into a workout that might otherwise focus exclusively on cardio. 

Cyclists who want to keep the focus on bike-relevant muscle groups will be paying attention to their glutes and quads, according to Proko, and to a lesser extent calves, hamstrings, and hip flexors. (But beware, he warns: focusing too much on less efficient muscles, such as hip flexors, at the expense of the more powerful glutes, can slow you down.) You can work many of the same muscle groups with the help of a Stairmaster or a simple weight-training routine. And, he adds, “yoga is a great option because of the combination of strength and flexibility.” Bikers will want to focus on classes that bring flexibility to hamstrings and hip flexors made tight by strength-building rides. Awakened Yoga in Sugar Land offers a rigorous Yin yoga class that leads students through a series of poses held for an unusually long time, thereby releasing connective tissue and finding space in the joints, particularly the hips. 

These days, some of the most intense glute workouts available are offered by trendy barre classes, such as those at Pure Barre in Tanglewood or The Bar Method in Montrose. These classes attempt to recreate the training dancers use for a mainstream crowd, using small, isometric movements while standing at a ballet barre. The workout results in long, firm muscles without the bulk—which should keep you strong and light for when the heat finally lifts and you jump back on the bike. —Kerry Howley

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