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The week after New Year’s is my favorite time in the gym. People feel like turning over a new leaf, and health and fitness seem to fall at the top of everyone’s list.

Of course, there are those who overdo it, pushing themselves too far too fast, like the 20-something man that required assistance from the St. Paul Fire Department last night at my gym. I didn’t witness what happened, but as I was doing my kettlebell windmills, I saw the firemen speaking with the young lad as he sat on a tall box, getting his breath back. He looked a bit shaken and woozy, but when the firemen left without him on their stretcher, it appeared all was well. I hope it didn’t deter him from his workouts, but for those of us just getting started, remember to ease into your new program. I can’t tell you how many times I feel like I’m going to pass out doing kettlebell swings — thank heavens Shane is a certified EMT — but I take a deep breath, adjust my routine and remember to always have an afternoon snack an hour or so before my workout.

The New Year is invigorating for a lot of people, including myself. I used to loathe crowds at the gym, only seeing the bodybuilders and skinny co-eds, feeling like the odd duck out — the chubby chick struggling to keep pace on the elliptical machine, the weak woman in the pit barely able to lift 10-pound weights.

But something has changed: The gym feels friendlier to me.

The staff has always been pleasant, but the crowd feels more welcoming, as if we’ve all agreed to finally support one another and get fit together. Now when people smile at me I smile back. When others ask me about my Vibram Five Fingers shoes, I answer their questions. Why, just last night, Shane and I had a brief interaction with a complete stranger who overheard our conversation about genetics being influenced by behaviors during pregnancy. We were discussing the study on high weight gain during pregnancy being linked to obesity-prone children, published in the Lancet last August; he noted that his extremely large, muscular friend, who was not present, discovered his dad was taking steriods during the time of his conception. I approved of his forwardness, and although his contribution didn’t help to justly illustrate the dangers of steriods, it did make for curious fodder and led to a spirited spin-off about testosterone.

This perception of friendliness may simply be imagined — it may have been there all along, but I was too self-conscious and too pessimistic to see it. Now I find myself energized by the people in the gym — the cardio machines full of bodies is inspiring, the folks trying the TRX or doing complexes or walking lunges pumps me up. As strong as I feel on the TRX or lifting kettlebells, though, nothing gets me going like a good dance class. Enter Zumba.

I’ve been wanting to take Zumba for months, when Life Time Fitness first started featuring it at some of the suburban gyms in Minnesota, so when it came to my location in St. Paul, it was time. For those of you unfamiliar with this fitness trend, which has really taken off in the past year, Zumba is mostly Latin-dance based, sometimes with hints of hip hop, depending on the instructor. Tonight’s Zumba class was lead by the very fit, funky and enthusiastic instructor Kristi G. The room was packed with women (and two guys — come on men!) of all shapes and abilities — some had all the steps down, others fumbled like myself. But we had fun. We danced and moved and clapped and cheered — I don’t think I’ve even enjoyed dancing at the clubs as much.

And what a workout! I recently purchased a Polar RS400 and have been learning new ways to use it, and tonight was excited to see how this class measured up. Unfortunately, I neglected to push start and only recorded 10 minutes (insert frowning face here). But those 10 minutes showed an average heart rate of 142 bpm (166 was my high), and 66 calories burned. For an hour class, it’s possible that amounted to 396 calories — not bad for my first time. As I pick up the steps and fumble less so I jump and move more, I see this as a great cardio workout to add to my routine. And one hell of a party.

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