One afternoon after a spin class, as I proudly mopped up the puddle of sweat beneath the bike, my daydream about an ice-cold martini and a huge bowl of pistachio ice cream (consumed in precisely that order) was interrupted when I heard a woman talking about running during the summer. In the desert. In the 100-super-plus-degree heat. At first I thought she was kidding (or perhaps was part lizard?), but then I remembered watching people run in an Austin, Texas, summer heat index that was nothing short of subatomic. I would pass these red-faced athletes in my barely air-conditioned Buick and actively resist the urge to offer them a lift to the closest indoor gym. These outdoor efforts appeared more like suffering than exercise.
This hardcore Coachella Valley runner talked about shortening her runs and decreasing her speed, but still. I was skeptical. “You get used to it,” she claimed to the slightly terrified-looking new year-round resident and avid runner, adding, “but it’s not for everyone.” Exactly. It’s no joke that the CV sun can be deadly: Every year it seems a hiker dies from heat-induced complications. As my husband likes to tell me when he recounts his “I didn’t realize it was that hot when I started to climb that mountain in May” story about a close brush with disaster in Palm Springs many years ago, each time heat exhaustion occurs, the outcome is likely to be worse, and often fatal. It’s called heatstroke for a reason, and the only way to be completely safe is to avoid extreme exertion in the hot sun. (Adding a sun visor to your ensemble is not enough.)
Pedal Spin Studio trainer troy Skinner counts down the hill climb.
What to do? In a place where it’s bikini season more or less year round, how do Coachella Valley full-timers (and a growing number of intrepid summer visitors) keep their bodies looking hot when it’s too hot to move? There are so many diverse and effective fitness options for both the seasoned and the seasonal exercise buff that there’s no reason to watch your fitness level plummet when desert temperatures soar. Muumuus and caftans might be all the sartorial rage, but you can still keep it together under all that flowing fabric.
If you are an avid outdoor runner or hiker or someone who can’t face the thought of giving up your Rollerblades, or you’re someone who likes to do tai chi in full sun in the park or power walk with weights on your ankles and wrists as my mom did in the ’80s (as is the case in fashion, fitness trends also come around again), you might question this logic. Maybe you think gyms are boring and stinky (Nope!). You might think it’s pointless to ride a bike that goes nowhere (It isn’t! Not when there are disco lights involved!). The very idea of a treadmill might make you nervous, even nauseous (I can relate).
Apart from the solid wisdom of avoiding any kind of exertion in intense heat, exercise science supports the idea of trying new things. Park your bike, store your Rollerblades, and try something new. If you’ve ever read a fitness article, or just scanned the take-away headlines while buying a flourless chocolate cake at Whole Foods, you know that cross training, or “mixing it up,” helps you look better in the outfit you love to mix it up in. And the added benefit is that stepping out of your comfort zone and into a comfortable air-conditioned space might just improve your social life. So sweat boldly! Many of the friends I’ve made since moving to the desert two years ago I met while charging up an imaginary hill in a spin class at Pedal Spin Studio in Rancho Mirage, a place I noticed just after it opened as I was driving down Highway 111.
At Pedal (which has other SoCal locations), studio manager Jeff Akman (aka “Jeffy G” for those of us regulars in his high-energy classes) and his team maintain an immaculate studio that is open every day and features, as he puts it, “state-of -the-art bikes that offer a smooth ride for [everyone from] the everyday spinner to the outdoor cyclist or mountain biker.” With 45-, 60-, and even 90-minute classes from morning into the evening, as well as a hybrid Pedal/Pump class that includes work with resistance bands and hand weights, and a new yoga program, you can pick a class that works for you. (I’m particularly fond of Akman’s 30-minute Booty Pump, where we “werk” just that part of the body).
The Pedal faithful can hardly stand to miss a single day.
“many friends have been made here, and it’s amazing to see how they hold each other accountable. we want you to come in, make friends, sweat like a beast, and leave with a bigger smile than the one you walked in with.”
— jeff akman, studio manager,
pedal spin studio, rancho mirage
Look around local social media feeds and you’ll likely see the hashtag #pedalfamily. As Akman describes it, “Many friends have been made here, and it’s amazing to see how they hold each other accountable without even knowing it. We want you to come in, make friends, sweat like a beast, and leave with a bigger smile on your face than the one you walked in with.” Friends who sweat together, stay together, and that’s the truth. This is a studio with a big heart, hosting a variety of benefit rides for causes as diverse as Breast Cancer Awareness, Women’s Heart Disease Awareness and Prevention, and the National Tay-Sachs organization. Students at Pedal love the workouts and their fellow spinners so much that many of them end up training to become instructors themselves. And if you like to exercise so you can check out from the world for a bit? Don’t want to take sweaty selfies or group shots with your exercise pals that look like a still from a Janet Jackson music video that went horribly wrong? No problem. Akman points out, “You can get lost in your own ride” without getting clobbered by the heat.
Speaking of heat, the science behind the hourlong workouts at Orange Theory Palm Desert will have you feeling the burn long after your workout is over, turning your metabolism into a supercharged, calorie-incinerating furnace that stays spiked through happy hour and beyond (so bring on the bar nuts). But first, you’ve gotta work. A mandatory heart-rate monitor tracks calories and effort “zones” as you move through work blocks that alternate between treadmill hills and pushes that mimic outdoor runs or incline work, a rowing machine (which makes me think fondly of the Charles River and the rowers of my alma mater in Boston), and weight work on the floor. Coaches push you to reach your “orange zone” for a minimum of 12 minutes per hour (one minute in the zone = one “splat” point, which is difficult to earn and so fun to say, although when I first mentioned this to my husband he thought I’d run over a squirrel) to increase the desired “afterburn.” Exercise science tells us that plain old steady-state cardio isn’t enough to reach or maintain overall fitness and that weight training helps with bone density, reducing the likelihood of osteoporosis and osteopenia and making those halter tops and tank tops a possibility once again. Orange Theory does it all and also uses fun fitness toys — the BOSU ball, the TRX Suspension Trainer, the Ab Dolly — that improve strength and ability, the latter being an often overlooked component of fitness. Plus, it just doesn’t feel like exercise when you’re doing a move called “the Crocodile.” Okay, it does, but it’s still fun to say to the coach, “Hey, is my crocodile snapping its mouth the right way?”
Does this seem intimidating to you (Exercise and science? Alligators?)? OK, consider this: I’ve worn a prosthetic leg all my life, and the OT coaches have helped me modify moves so that I’m able to feel successful. They consistently offer options for those with orthopedic issues. (However, I can rock those one-legged squats with no trouble at all). Overall, my strength, speed, and agility have improved after just six months of twice-a-week OT workouts. For those of you who like instant gratification (calories burned, average heart rate, time spent in specific zones, number of coveted splat points), your results are available to post on Facebook the second the workout ends.
An Orange Theory student steadies herself with 25-pound weights before executing a series of squat.
OT offers additional member incentives: Hell Week, around Halloween, is a series of particularly grueling workouts set to trick-or-treat classics like “Thriller”; organized teams for the Tram Road Run; and Weight Loss Challenges that help everyone, no matter their body type or fitness level, reach their personal health goals. OT coach Alex Carrera points out that the three-pronged approach of “endurance, strength, and power” (ESP) is key to member success, and part of what has made this fitness trend so popular worldwide. “Some days are power days, while others are ESP,” Carrera says. And each type of workout is as different as a member’s goals — from looking smokin’ in your new Lucky jeans to getting fit enough to run a local 5K to besting your last marathon time. Monthly happy hours mean you can talk to that person you were “snatching” next to (yes, you heard that right) in a more casual and less sweaty setting.
Big, full-service gyms like Eos in Palm Springs and World Gym, with locations in Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and La Quinta, offer group fitness classes as well as cardio equipment and weights. InShape in Cathedral City, one of the newer corporate facilities, is not only open 24 hours, ensuring that you can work out no matter your work schedule, but it offers a lot of bang for your fitness buck. According to spinning instructor Troy Skinner, “you could take a Zumba or Body Pump class in the group fitness room or an aqua class in the pool, or an amazing indoor cycling class in the Zen-like cycle room.” Although Skinner cites the something-for-everyone aspect of the gym as an important draw, “the people are the main reason” he loves teaching there. You can also purchase personal training bundles at the bigger gyms for a fraction of what you’d pay an independent trainer at a private studio.
Another student performs core-building spider pushups on a BOSU ball.
Orange Theory trainer Alex Carrera lunges with a medicine ball while executing a core twist.
the three-pronged approach of “endurance, strength, and power” (ESP) is key to member success. “Some days are power days, while others are esp.”
— Alex Carrera, Trainer, Orange Theory, Palm Desert
If those large open rooms full of cardio equipment don’t appeal to you, and the idea of a 24/7 facility makes you think of 7-Eleven, there are plenty of other boutique fitness options. Don’t let the word “boutique” fool you. Next Level Fitness, with locations in Palm Desert and La Quinta, is hardcore. Here you can pull on boxing gloves and work out your aggression on a heavy bag in Cardio-Combat. Five minutes of fast punching and you’ll drop sweat and stress, all while channeling your inner Rocky. Added bonus? The boxer braid is a great summer hairstyle.
Like many of the smaller fitness studios in the valley, Next Level prides itself on creating community while simultaneously challenging its members. Offerings include a Boot Camp “full-body workout” and an S-4 Assault workout, called “the mother of all workouts” that breaks the hourlong training session into four distinct blocks for maximum burn and shred. “Suns Out, Guns Out” focuses on heart-rate training with heavier weights. I asked co-owner Gerry Washack why someone might want to drop into Next Level when the weather outside is frightfully hot.
“We need to stay active all year round,” he says. “Just because it gets hot outside doesn’t mean we just throw in the towel.” There’s no reason for desert dwellers to succumb to “cabana fever.” Washack thinks of his studios as “lifestyle gyms,” with a three-part focus on movement, teamwork, and proper nutrition. “We need to move every day,” Washack says. “You don’t need to beat up your body every day,” he adds, but breaking a sweat — daily — is key to longevity. Washack also points out that Next Level offers semiprivate group training, which is more cost-effective than hiring a person to work with you one-on-one.
If all this talk of hardcore cardio isn’t for you, or if you don’t like the idea of heavy bags, Pure Barre in Palm Desert will help you feel like a dancer, even if you’ve never set foot in a dance studio. Barre classes move through the same movements in the same order and all the moves are done to a pumping pop-music and hip-hop soundtrack. Pure Barre has made a business out of the science of small, precise, or “micro” movements. You will literally “shake to change” and feel like a strong swan while doing it. And if you think maximum pain can’t come from a pair of 2-pound dumbbells and a very small red ball pressed into your lower back as you pulse your upper body into the air, think again.
Small-group fitness training is also a focus at Exuro in Palm Desert, where you can take a hybrid barre/spin class, as well as suffer through a whole hour of Tabata intervals. Tabata is a style of exercise that features 20 seconds of hard work followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times. Do this for an hour and you can drink all the Koffi malted mocha freezes you want. The high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) spikes the metabolism and is great for people who have limited time but still want to get fit.
For those who live down valley or are staying at one of the many resorts in Desert Hot Springs, Five Star Fitness offers all the benefits of a large gym. There are a variety of classes, including HIIT, a 50/50 spin and abs class (because we all need a strong core), and an XXXtreme class that is not as R-rated as the name suggests, but does make this promise: “Train insane or remain the same.” This gym also offers many options for seniors, including Silver Sneakers classes and other low-intensity options.
Is it hard to be motivated to move when the walk across the parking lot from Trader Joe’s to Target is enough to make you look like you’ve been tagged in the Ice Bucket Challenge? Sure. But think of it this way: From June 1 to Nov. 1, caution is key. As my daughter shouts every morning while I drive her to preschool in Las Palmas, “Watch out for that mountain, Mommy!” You do need to be careful, at the risk of compromising your health.
You could try something new literally every day with all the studios and gyms and instructors that populate our valley — some of the best in the country. Your body will thank you, as will your mind, and when you do get on your bike again or lace up your hiking boots for the Cactus to Clouds trail, you’ll be stronger, fitter, and you just might have made a new friend to come along for the ride.
The WaterRowers at Orange Theory are equipped with water tanks under the machines that mimic the resistance of rowing a scull.
An Orange Theory student lunges with a TRX Suspension Trainer that uses suspension and the student’s own weight to build core strength.