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Carol Espel on Living Healthier

Carol Espel is the national director of group fitness programming for Equinox Fitness Clubs, which originated in New York City and has expanded to several cities throughout the United States. Espel, who has a master’s degree in applied physiology and nutrition from Columbia University, is certified by the American Council on Exercise and is both certified by and an examiner for the American College of Sports Medicine in the exercise leader and health/fitness instructor categories. Here, she shares her thoughts on living a healthier, more fit lifestyle.

What are the keys to sticking with an exercise program?

You have to build in ways to succeed, including a plan, preparation and rewards. Look at your lifestyle and form a realistic plan that won’t make you feel overwhelmed or guilty when you’re so caught up in everything else that you don’t have time to work out. Set aside a specific time to do your workout or exercise and make a reasonable commitment that you can manage. One thing that really helps is having a social support network—your husband, mom, sister or friend—that will encourage you when you’re tempted to fall off your routine. Additionally, when one of these supporters is also your workout partner, you’re less likely to cancel when you know they’ll be waiting for you.

Most importantly, choose activities you really enjoy. Nobody is dying to go to the gym and run five miles every day, but maybe there’s a walking treadmill class at the gym, or a walking group in your community where you can say, “I actually enjoy this walking, and I enjoy the social aspect.” If you don’t like swimming, don’t swim!

When starting a fitness program, what mistakes do people make?

People jump in too hard, too fast. They become sore or injured and they don’t come back. Working harder is not better. You don’t have to do a lot to get the benefits, but anything worthwhile won’t be super easy. You’ll have good days and bad days, and you won’t have immediate results. It’s important to acknowledge how easy it is to find an excuse not to exercise. You have to think about that on day two and day three.


Can people make their own fitness plans, or should they seek professional guidance?

I recommend a few sessions with a certified personal trainer: It’s the best investment you can make for a healthy and appropriate exercise program. People often fail because they don’t have a plan, but a trainer can give you a safe, manageable, personalized routine that fits into your lifestyle, goals and preferences. You can then continue to work out on your own with periodic checkups to ensure proper technique and form, as well as to adjust the amount of weight and number of reps and sets you do. Also, the trainer will be able to provide fresh ideas to update your existing routine.

What kind of activity do you recommend?

Any activity! It might be something as simple as walking the dog around the block once or twice a day. Just get moving. I generally recommend walking to get started because everyone can do it, it’s a full-body exercise, it doesn’t cost anything except for a good pair of walking shoes and it can be done anywhere. Start with as many days as you can. Even ten minutes, one to three times a day can work. Ultimately, people should work up to doing something moderately intense (light sweating at about 60 to 75% of target heart rate), three to five days a week for 20 to 60 minutes.

What about people who aren’t seeing results?

They’re not getting results because they’re not working hard enough or doing the right thing for them. They need to get a trainer or a friend to help them crank it up a notch or self-motivate. Bottom line: They’re getting minimal results because they’re doing minimal work. You must be present when you work out, not reading a newspaper. Your body knows if you’re not focused.

How can we motivate a “couch potato”?

Typically, something drastic happens to get them going, such as a death or a poor medical report. Usually, though, after the first couple of sessions, they feel better and that is sometimes motivating. Whatever the motivation, it has to be real and meaningful to them personally or the behavior change won’t last. It takes a lot to make a new behavior consistent, so it needs to be personalized and important to them.


What trends are you seeing in people’s approach to fitness?

First, people are taking an interest in the more integrated, comprehensive approach to health and fitness that has developed over the past 10 to 15 years. They want programming that gives a good cardiovascular workout, but also classes like yoga and Pilates so they can feel better, develop muscles, manage their weight and stay in shape. Second, people who have come to the club for years are aging and they don’t want to work out the way they used to. They’ve had a few kids or their knees are shot. They want a lower-impact format and choices that address all their needs, not just the one-stop workout of the old days.

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