Who doesn’t long for the carefree days of childhood? I know I pine for a time when I ate macaroni and cheese by the bucketful, when my biggest stress was remembering my routine in ballet class, and the worst thing that could happen was Clarissa Explains It All’s being canceled.
By far the best part about being a kid was the concept of “play,” that beautifully unstructured childhood institution. My friends and I would spend hours cruising around our neighborhood on bikes, playing complicated chasing games and make-believe. Plus, in a time that predated computers and ubiquitous video games, we got a ton of exercise at the same time. I have never been as active or as healthy as when I was eleven years old. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only started “developing” when they stopped manufacturing the Get in Shape Girl.
The toys we played with kept our bodies active and our minds occupied. Whenever I’m in an exercise rut, I always want to pull out one of my old favorite toys for a fun and nostalgic workout. Many of the things we once used as playthings could be even more effective than our grown-up balance balls and free weights.
Photo courtesy of AlphaTangoBravo (cc)
This 1950s gem is proof that neither toys nor exercise equipment need to be high-concept. I used to spend hours in my driveway hooping, pretending that I was the next great rhythmic gymnast by throwing and catching my hoop in very impressive ways. Little did I know that the hula motion is actually an amazing workout for the abs. The oblique muscles, the rectus abdominis, and the transverse abdominis are all toned by the swiveling hip action, plus the cardio activity burns a fair amount of calories. It’s even possible to find weighted hula-hoops for adults who want to add a little extra boost to their workout.
I was never able to master the pogo stick, so I was pretty thrilled when the easy-to-use pogo ball came out. You stand on the platform, using your feet to hug the ball, and then you jump. And jump! And jump! I pogo-ed all over my neighborhood, probably expending far more energy than it would have taken to walk. All that effort, though, was worth it, since pogo balls have great effects on the stabilizing muscles of the legs. The inner thighs, quads, and gluteus muscles get a great workout from all the gripping and hopping, and the pogo ball is great for developing balance. I always think about digging around my parents’ garage for my old ball whenever I’m at the gym doing endless leg lifts. The pogo ball was way more fun.
Hours of running on the treadmill make me want to lace up my old skates, call my friend Dana, and set up a roller rink in my garage while listening to Paula Abdul. Who’d have thought that roller skates (and the more modern rollerblades) can strengthen muscles in the lower body, especially the quadriceps and the hamstrings, as well as the inner and outer thigh muscles? They also provide an effective all-over cardio workout, burning about three hundred and thirty calories for an hour of exercise. The American Heart Association even recognizes and recommends roller skating as an aerobic activity, and it causes far less impact to the joints than high-intensity activities like running.
Photo courtesy Robert S. Donovan (cc)
On my school playground, we had serious jump rope skills. We played double-dutch, hot peppers, and sang about Miss Mary Mack. Whenever I see adults jumping rope, though, they never look like they’re having as much fun. Boxers and dancers love jumping rope, which targets the calves, thighs, shoulders, and butt. It’s a serious cardio workout, and trainers estimate that a person can burn as many calories in ten minutes of jumping rope as in thirty minutes of jogging. It also builds agility, important for many sports. It doesn’t require a gym, so it’s portable and inexpensive, too.
I was always partial to video games played on the PowerPad. Titles like World Class Track Meet, Short Order/Eggsplode, or (my personal favorite) Dance Aerobics allowed us to work on our coordination, timing, and agility, as well as burn calories. Dance Dance Revolution owes its very existence to this unsung peripheral. Nowadays of course, we have the Wii, and it’s possible to get a pretty great workout focused on core training, strength exercises, and balance. Using the Wii, you can even jog, hula hoop, or do yoga. I myself confess to many a sore muscle after playing a particularly fierce game of tennis or bowling.
For kids, exercise is a natural part of having fun, but for adults, it can be terrible drudgery. I used to climb trees, ride my bike, and referee my make-believe roller rink, but now I spend hours doing crunches and climbing the StairMaster to nowhere. These kitschy and kooky devices remind us that fitness doesn’t have to be boring, no matter what age you are. The next time I hit the gym, I may just abandon my usual routine for a little jumping rope, and I hope the people around me won’t mind my rendition of “Cinderella, dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a fella …”