The truth about bellydance as a workout

I’ve always been skeptical about the claims that bellydance alone can be the way to a toned and fit body. Now, there are a lot of producers of bellydance-based workout DVDs, and their ad copy tends to make the big claims: lose weight, be hot, and so on. The thing is, unless you’re doing it at a very high level — i.e., high energy performances, rehearsals and classes for hours a day — bellydance is just not that intensive.

That’s why I was delighted at the fresh candour of a video on the topic posted on Life is Cake, a WDNY facebook page with interviews and random thoughts:

In it, Neon, Tanna Valentine, and Andy Troy talk about bellydance as a workout program, and they all come to pretty much the same conclusion: it’s wonderful as a way to get moving, but to get to a certain level of fitness, you pretty much need to be doing some extra exercise, to say nothing of watching your diet.

Now, I do think bellydance-based workouts can be intensive. I’ve occasionally broken a sweat or felt the satisfying results of serious abdominal work using DVDs. But, as Neon suggests, that often comes at the cost of some of the “danceyness” of the workout. Some DVDs also have a separate pilates or yoga component, as does one of the live classes I am currently taking. I think this is a fantastic way of getting two workouts in one, as it were.

The real point though, in my opinion, is that the light exercise offered by bellydance is just as, if not more important than hardcore gym ratting. Neon, Andy, and Tanna all note that it’s better to get some movement done than none at all, and that bellydance is accessible and pleasurable to (mostly) women who might not otherwise do weights or heavy cardio. For one thing, there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that regular light exercise can be even more effective for weight loss than hard workouts, as it is energizing rather than exhausting. More importantly though, accessible exercise is the most realistic option for most people, and it’s the most sustainable too. There are certain forms of movement — yoga and swimming also come to mind — that are gentle enough to do till ripe old age, and that can be varied enough to be maintained through many injuries or poor health. Bellydance can be done at a high level of professionalism, but it’s also just a deeply pleasurable way of moving for all of us. And it has an advantage over yoga and swimming, namely, really good music.

Finally, there’s an advantage that dance classes have over gym exercise. Neon seems to hint at this when she talks about incorporating the artistry of the dance into workouts. The thing is, the precise focus of a dance class makes it deeply absorbing. For me, at least, it makes the rest of the world disappear for 60 to 90 minutes. (Yoga has some of this precision of movement too.) If I’m on an elliptical, I can’t really shut the rest of the world out. The best I can do is listen to some music or look around at usually rather hideous surroundings and try to ignore the pain. I love swimming laps, but the monotony of swimming makes it hard to escape my own thoughts. (Though I do think it’s wonderful for achieving a zen-like attitude to my thoughts!)

But when I’m in bellydance or ballet, there is nothing outside the studio. Whether I’m focusing on pressing against the floor when executing a tendu, or on achieving the gooey, internal movement of an omi, I am exquisitely present, in the moment, and at one with my body. And this feeling is what makes me go back to class even when my body is tired from a long day, protesting that it doesn’t want to move anymore. It doesn’t get more sustainable than that!

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Review of The Bar Method Accelerated Workout

On a business trip, with a hotel room all to myself, I’m looking to do a little bit of exercise to make up for the dance classes I’m missing, and I pull out the The Bar Method Accelerated Workout. The desk chair does for a barre, and I pull out two way-too-cold beer bottles from the mini fridge to use as light weights. You do what you can.

Like The Bar Method: Change Your Body (previously reviewed), the Accelerated Workoutcarefully covers all the major areas of your body. Burr Leonard begins with arm work, using both light weights and the body for resistance. The triceps exercises are particularly effective, but it’s hard to judge since those bottles really were a little too light for me.
She then moves on to some challenging thigh work, the kind of plié and relevé series that I so love from my ballet class. I feel these, oh do I ever feel these. The glute work is not as hard for me. However, to be fair, I think maintaining proper form here is really key, and I have a hard time doing so. These seem like the kinds of tiny moves that are super-effective when done right, and completely pointless when performed incorrectly.
The abdominal exercises are nice, pilates-type moves. They are challenging, but not insane – that is, despite the fact that I still can’t do a proper roll-up, I can keep up with most of these. However, the next section, involving “back dancing” – that is, small movements performed with the back rolled up from the ground, kind of like bellydancing while lying down – is wildly intense. I have experienced few techniques as good for hitting the inner thighs. These are challenging, fun, and painful in a good way.
The workout closes with some good stretches, though they could be held longer.
Back dancing may look like lying down — it is not.

My take on the video? I love, love, love how careful Burr Leonard is about form. She gives pointers constantly, repeatedly reminds you to tuck your pelvis, engage your abs, and so on. This is precisely the kind of thing you need when you are working out without a live instructor. Her demeanor is matter-of-fact and friendly, which is also what I prefer in a video teacher. (Overly peppy is not my thing.) And there is another instructor you can follow throughout for modifications, which is also key to staying safe.

While I didn’t quite feel all the exercises as much as I might have liked to, and in fact, right after the workout I didn’t have any sore muscles, doing the video did energize me right away and made me feel taller and looser. (I actually followed it up with a quick swim in the hotel pool – might as well take advantage!) And as has happened before with the BarMethod, I certainly did feel the effects on the second and third day after doing the workout. This is especially true for all sorts of little muscles in my back and arms that I usually don’t exercise.

At one hour, the video is easy to fit into a busy schedule, and is definitely high on my list to do again. It’s the perfect workout for those days when you have a set amount of time, need to be energized rather than crushed, and want to cover all the major muscle groups of your body.

Full disclosure: I have received a review copy of a different Bar Method DVD (stay tuned!), but I bought this one myself.

Putting mom’s body together again

Yesterday I swam for the first time since last October. Having finally received the go-ahead for exercise at my six-week check-up on Monday, I spent what free time I could carve out during the week doing a series of activities I hadn’t been able to for ages:

1. Tuesday: I took a hot bath.
2. Wednesday: I got a massage.
3. Thursday: I went swimming.

I’ve come to see these as necessary activities not just for me, but also for everyone around me. On the especially exhausted days recently, not only have I been miserable, but I’ve managed to make everyone around me miserable too. The destructive power of an unhappy mom is considerable! So my husband knows to send me out of the house when things are getting bad. On one particularly exhausted day, he said to me, “Why don’t I watch the baby and you go to Half Price Books and buy some books?” Now, I need more books like I need a tornado to go through my living room (oh, wait…), but I dutifully went and did what I needed to do for the sake of my soul. I don’t think what he did is pictured in Porn for New Moms, but it should be.

Anyway, to return back to swimming… During my pregnancy, I splurged on prenatal massages twice. I don’t usually go for massages, but I thought my body deserved them then. But what surprised me was how psychologically important they were too. Even during a pretty easy pregnancy, I still felt like my body wasn’t really my own anymore. People stared at my belly, and every time I went to the doctor’s I was poked and prodded in various ways. It started to feel like my abdominal area was just a totally different part of me, available for the viewing and inspection of others. When I got a prenatal massage, I nearly wanted to cry, since it was the first time I felt like a whole person, with body and mind both belonging to me.

Fast forward to labour, a c-section, breastfeeding… now my body feels even more cut up into chunks. This bit is for the baby, this bit was cut up and needs to be kept dry and not used for anything, this bit is still bleeding, this bit hurts from lifting the baby, and this other bit hurts from bending over too much. It’s a completely fragmented experience of my own body. And while massage and the bath helped a bit, it was really when I went swimming that my body didn’t feel like bits anymore.

Plunging into the water I felt shocked by its coolness, and so I focused on that. I had been a bit scared about my first bit of exercise — would my abdominal muscles hurt? Would I feel them pulling the way I did a few weeks ago when I stood up holding the baby? But they felt fine when I started swimming, my back pain went away, and suddenly I could just give in to the meditative flow of being in the water. I’ve never been a particularly strong or skilled swimmer — in fact, I really only started to like it in university, after reading a book on swimming and working on my technique (yes, I do everything via book learnin’!) — but I can now breast stroke for ages.

Even more surprising than the fact that my body felt ok, in fact just like my old, pre-baby body, was this: I found I wasn’t getting tired at all. You would think after six weeks of no exercise, lack of sleep, round-the-clock breastfeeding, and only short walks, the first bit of cardio would have me huffing and puffing at the edge of the pool. Not only did that not happen, but I only left the pool because of the cold weather, not because I was tired. I really felt I could have gone on swimming for another hour, forgetting all those worries and to-do lists that usually fill my head.

I am now really looking forward to starting some gentle postnatal workouts and bellydance…