Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Home Sweat Home

The human body hasn’t changed for millennia, but the place where we strengthen, shape, maintain, and tone our bodies certainly has. And how.

Today, more and more of us do our crunches, push-ups and bicep curls at home—and not in the corner of the bedroom, either, or in our dark musty basement. Today’s home gym is light and airy, well equipped and welcoming, and above all, a place where you want to go to get the healthy body you desire.

But do you really need to design a space to sweat? Of course not, but you don’t really need to design a place to cook, either, as long as you’re content with a pile of burning wood and a hunk of meat on a stick. A little help with investing thousands of dollars in the right exercise equipment and some thought on the ambience of the place where you’ll be using it will improve your results.

Plan Around Your Workout

So how do you get started? The first step, says Ruth Tara, owner of Home Gym Designs in White Plains, NY, is to plan the space around your workouts. As a former personal trainer, she asks her clients to fill out two questionnaires: one on their workout history, preferences, and intentions; the other about any medical conditions. Then she sends them to a health club to try out the various machines.

When it comes to choosing the room itself, Gym Source CEO Richard Miller says, “A lot of people take a basement space and stick a gym down there. Unless the space has a high ceiling, nicely finished, and has a television and some mirrors to make the room look bigger and brighter, they’re never going to want to go down there.”

“It’s more important to have a high ceiling than to have a wider space to work out in,” Miller adds. He also recommends, “Have a lot of space in the gym. You might bring a trainer into your house to work with you and you have to have room to move around. So don’t overcrowd it.”

And don’t forget that home gyms are family places. “I’ve done rooms for kids adjacent to the parents’ gym,” Tara says. “They make great brightly-colored play mats and equipment for the kids to bounce on. I like to put a gate across it, though, to separate the two areas.” It’s a good idea to keep little kids away from the adult treadmills and other equipment with moving, finger-mangling parts.

Most trainers recommend flooring that absorbs impact in some way. “It safeguards knees and ankles. The other advantage is noise control,” Tara points out. “With a rubber floor, you can also sweat all you want and spill all you want. It cleans up with soap and water.” Rubber flooring runs around $15 per square foot and comes in a full range of colors and patterns. It doesn’t have to be glued down anymore, either, since it often comes in pieces that fit together like jigsaw puzzles and can be removed if the homeowner moves or decides to make a change.

You’ll need at least one full-length mirror to check your form while you exercise, but a completely mirrored room isn’t necessary. Other wall treatments can include bright, cheerful colors, scenic murals, inspiring posters, even sunny windows; whatever makes you want to be in the room. And don’t forget the entertainment center! Music and video sure makes running on the treadmill less like, well, running on a treadmill.

Equipment for Every Body

As far as your workout equipment goes, Miller explains that good fitness has three basic components: cardio-vascular training, strength training, and flexibility. For cardio, you can choose among treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationary bicycles, and others. “People sometimes have two or three pieces of cardio-vascular equipment because they get bored, not because one is better than another,” he says.

For strength training, “The most important is an adjustable bench and some dumbbells,” according to Miller. “The next step is a pulley machine, where you can do high pulleys and low pulleys. From there, you go to a multi-gym, where you have a weight stack and you can do a hundred different exercises with the unit.” After that, you start adding single-purpose strength machines to work on specific muscles.

For flexibility, all you need is a mat and some room to stretch out. “A lot of people also do functional exercises using balls, bands, steps, and balance bars,” he adds.

“I always recommend starting out small because you want to leave room in the gym not only to add something else, but for replacement,” Miller says. “And who knows what’s going to be invented tomorrow?”

The single most important component in a home gym, Tara concludes, is the fun factor—and that’s something that needs to be designed in. “There are people who hate exercise. Nobody likes doing laundry, either, but if you make the laundry room look nice and it’s accessible, and you don’t stumble over junk when you go in it, you’ll be more apt to go in there with a positive attitude.”

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Two Kids at Carnegie Hall: Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma

I enjoyed a completely different kind of musical experience when Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma appeared together at Carnegie Hall. I’ve seen hundreds of performances there, but never one where both the audience and the artists had quite so much fun.

McFerrin is a unique musician, to say the least. Genres don’t matter, nor does solemnity apply when he turns his four-octave voice and circular breathing technique to the task of making music. It is also not often that you’ll see a conductor literally jump from the stage to the Parquet with a hand-held mic to chat with a few audience members and to ask one of them if he could see her program so he could find out what he was supposed to play! Great fun.

Also great music. The first piece on the program was Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor. McFerrin sang the violin line, which lent a light, almost festive tone to the piece. Next was Faure’s Pavane in F-sharp Minor, followed by Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos, where he performed one part and was joined by Yo-Yo Ma as the second. Ma has never been accused of taking himself too seriously on stage, either, so it was a delightful combination.

Then the fun really started, though, as McFerrin’s improvisational genius was engaged. When he and Ma did Bach’s Air on the G String, I noticed the concertmistress of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s listening with her eyes closed, enjoying the absolute purity of McFerrin’s tone. Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” performed by the fun-loving duo was an absolute hoot, as was McFerrin’s parody of an opera in which he led the orchestra in nonsense sounds while singing alternatively as a baritone and a soprano.

The height of the evening, however, was McFerrin’s finale, a compressed a capella version of “The Wizard of Oz” in which he sang nearly every role—Dororthy, the Scarecrow, munchkins, the wizard, and a wonderful witch. By the end of the night, my face hurt from grinning.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Winer Things In Life

What equates more with the good life than fine wine? And what signifies a true oenophile better than a carefully-stocked walk-in (or live-in) wine cellar? Even if your home isn’t built atop a limestone cavern, you can enjoy the benefits of a custom wine cellar that will truly add value to your home—and your lifestyle.

Beverly Hills wine consultant Jeff Smith, author of The Best Cellar, offers some advice: “By the time you consider building a wine cellar, chances are you're at or over the tipping point where you can comfortably house your collection in a wine refrigerator in the garage. Plan for more than you think you need. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does a wine cellar.”

A seldom-used bedroom or even a large closet can be converted to a fine home cellar, or you can buy one of several ready-made wine rooms (really just very large cabinets) from companies like Bacchus Wine Cellars or Vinotheque for around $5,000. If you’re building a new home or even doing an extensive remodel, your builder may offer a cellar as an option, of course, which is probably the best value you’ll find since original construction is almost always less expensive than retro-fitting. Expect to invest $25,000 or more in a fully-dedicated space.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds