It’s high noon, fog-free, and an unseasonably warm 83 degrees near the intersection of Hayes and Octavia Streets in the City by the Bay. I’m lying in a plank position, forearms on the ground, legs outstretched, and tailbone pointing to the cloudless cerulean sky.
Surely the local Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce are high-fiving over the day’s weather perfection. Photographers must be out in droves, stationing themselves at the city’s most picturesque spots to record this climatic phenomenon.
From my vantage point, I’m feeling somewhat conflicted that San Francisco’s golden sun is shining on me — to borrow one of Tony’s lyrics – for it’s causing me to perspire that much more as heat radiates off the pavement.
I’m in the midst of a 55-minute, small group, urban workout with Basic Training. The experience is akin to a boot camp – but not.
I had met Basic Training’s founder, Jennifer Pattee, at a recent travel writers conference. A walking advertisement for the benefits of her urban workout concept, Jenn encouraged me to give one of her fitness classes a try. The name, Basic Training, gave me pause, though, as visions of undergoing the same intense, do-or-die military boot camp that converts flabby civilians into hard-body soldiers flashed through my brain. Jenn quickly quelled that impression.
She called Basic Training “a happy hour social experience, an adventure that’s not your basic boot camp. No walls, no mirrors, no TVs.” I pressed for more information.
“We meet you where you are,” Jenn said. “It’s not too hard, too fast, or too furious, and each class is appropriate with what you can do. Fitness is about showing up every day, and if it’s not fun, sustainable, or if it’s a workout you hate, you won’t come back. Plus, science supports the health benefits of working out outdoors.”
The icing on the cake that sold me – “It’s reconnecting with what it’s like to be a kid,” she added.
From rookies to rooters
This is my first time taking an exercise class in the great outdoors, and I’ve brought reinforcements – my friend Ter and her daughter Tania, both visiting from the East. Our instructor, Alex, is putting the three of us and two other participants, Nicole (a Basic Training regular) and Jeff (another newbie) through our collective paces as we run, walk, jump, pull, push, squat, press, and stretch our way through the session.
Our setting is PROXY in the eclectic Hayes Valley neighborhood, where high-end boutiques, funky art galleries, bars, and restaurants abound. Patricia’s Green, a small park across the street, boasts an eye-catching pagoda.
PROXY is an innovative, minimalist, industrial-looking locale. The pavement bears an arresting pattern of white dots. Surrounding the space are renovated shipping containers housing assorted businesses, including Juice Shop, Ritual Coffee Roasters, Smitten Ice Cream, Aether Apparel, and Biergarten. There’s even a large white screen serving as a walk-in theater. Alex says PROXY was an unused parking space reimagined as a mixed-use property designed to engage the community with retail, shopping, food, culture, the arts, and events. Basic Training fulfills the play part of PROXY’s mission.
Nearby are the imposing Davies Symphony Hall, War Memorial Opera House, and SFJAZZ Center, but it’s the everyday, vibrant, rhythmic sounds of the city that provide the musical backdrop for our class. The loud, vibrating drills and jack hammers from a construction site. A procession of cars, motorcycles, and lumbering trucks braking at the four-way stop, then revving forward. The flow of pedestrians towing laughing children or deep in conversation. The cha-chinging of chains as a dozen helmeted riders pedaling by on identical red touring bikes change gears.
Ter, who does TRX training in a gym at home, admits she feels a little intimidated by the prospect of working out in so public an area. I get it, for I’m also used to working out in a regular gym, where fellow gym-goers generally concentrate on their own routines. With PROXY’s open access, there’s something of a fishbowl quality, of being on display.
People order drinks from the juice and coffee kiosks and park themselves on benches around us, as do brown baggers. Office workers on lunch break stroll right beside us while we’re prone on the pavement, and dodge around us as we do sprints. The best I can tell, though, no one outright stares at us. If they do pay any regard, it’s perhaps with passive bemusement.
Alex kicks us into high gear, and all thoughts of being self-conscious or distracted fly out the window – or would have if there were windows in this no-gym gym.
Our equipment consists of poles, step boxes, makeshift monkey bars, resistance bands, mats, and even each other’s legs for support during tricep dips. Often, classes venture out into the neighborhood and use the actual infrastructure of the city – hills, stairs, trees, benches, alleys, rocks. Except for some warmup laps around the block, we stay within our adult playground.
Alex exhorts us to lift this, squeeze that, squat lower, lunge right, raise up, pull down, modify this way, and hold that position for 45 more seconds as he leads us through the moves. We do tricep extensions, kickbacks, pull downs, and bicep curls for strength. Plank variations, mountain climbers, and bird dogs stabilize our cores and shoulders. It’s a full-on, full-body workout, as my quivering muscles attest, but doable.
Far from being a drill sergeant barking orders to “Drop and give me 50 pushups,” Alex cheerleads while challenging. He peppers us with questions to keep the mood light and foster camaraderie. What was your favorite thing about the weekend? Playing tennis, recalls Jeff. What’s your fitness goal? Finish this workout alive, I joke. What’s the best fitness advice you ever got? Listen to your own body, notes Tania. That’s the one, Alex agrees.
The grunts and groans we emit from our exertions are real, but good-natured. Fun is an essential part of this urban workout program, and we’re having a great time. With Nicole already a convert, the four of us newcomers vow to return.
A different Tony Bennett lyric pops into my head, also befitting the occasion – “Spread sunshine all over the place, and put on a happy face.”
Photo of Jennifer Pattee courtesy of Basic Training.