By Sam McManis, McClatchy Newspapers
A two-mile stretch of Laguna Boulevard near Interstate 5 in Sacramento, Calif., boasts not one, but two cavernous and hulking chain fitness centers — perhaps a counterweight to the gauntlet of fast-food joints dotting the roadside.
Peer into the tinted windows and see the gleaming rows of elliptical machines lined up like so many sentinels. Check out the state-of-the-art weight rooms, the juice bars, the perky receptionists handing out towels and fatuous compliments. Take a gander at the habitues, pumped and preening.
Now, forget about all that.
Let’s head a little farther down Laguna to the rear of a nondescript Elk Grove, Calif., shopping center anchored by a Walgreens. By day, Suite 120 is a day-care center, replete with a colorful carpet that spells out the alphabet, mobiles hung in squares and rectangles, and cubbies overflowing with youthful artwork.
It is here that two nights a week, amid the scattered plastic dinosaurs and the fluffy bunny rustling in a cage, a small but enthusiastic band of women gathers to work on bodies and friendships in equal measure.
This is the Moms in Motion “strength, core and more” conditioning group, and it’s about as far from the glitzy, sterile sameness of chain fitness centers as one can imagine.
“It’s not like the gym,” said member Marguerite Ash, “where you don’t even know who’s working out next to you. There is support here.”
They come bearing yoga mats, wearing multihued, flowered singlets and, most important, flashing broad smiles. None of those grim, monotonous “reps and sets” for these women. More likely to pump irony than iron, they sweat and huff through an hour’s workout using the barest of props: a weighted bar and elastic bands and, primarily, their own body weight.
Sure, they’d love to have Michelle Obama triceps and rock-hard abs and whatever, but hey, they aren’t going to sacrifice the chance for a good time socializing.
“We are a fitness group first, but we chitchat, too,” said Wendy Hoag, who leads the Elk Grove/Sacramento “team” for Moms In Motion, a national organization in 106 cities whose mission is “connecting moms through fitness, fun and philanthropy.”
Unlike, for example, Curves, which franchises so-called boutique health clubs, Moms in Motion is more loosely affiliated, encouraging each “team” to find its own niche and venue. All teams, however, are required to raise money for charity. (The Elk Grove group raises funds to combat childhood obesity and will volunteer for the Nutrition Fuels Fitness 5K run on March 27 in Elk Grove.)
In Elk Grove, Hoag not only teaches the strength-and-core group but also a twice-weekly running-walking club. She takes her job seriously but approaches it as a social director as much as a fitness instructor.
One recent night, Hoag cued the fun music (”Kung Fu Fighting,” anyone?) and put the women through their paces with a series of exercises that engaged their core muscles — the rectus and transversus abdominis, the obliques, hip flexors and the all-important latissimus dorsi — along with a nod to the glutes, hamstrings and arms.
She can be a taskmaster, but a benign one. Nary a negative word issued from her lips all session. At most, she’d gingerly adjust a woman’s leg extension in the plank position and gently instruct, “Hold that navel to the spine and exhale, breathe.”
Late in the hour, when fatigue set in and the women were engaged in a spinal stretch, she noticed their heads were tilted downward, chins near the chest.
“Remember, you got a diamond necklace for your birthday and you’ve got to show it off,” Hoag said and, as if synchronized, all heads snapped back, looking upward. The women could barely suppress giggles.
The brilliance of Moms in Motion, Hoag said, is that thanks to the camaraderie, the women get a solid workout almost without realizing it. There is no rule, after all, that fitness has to hurt. For these women, the slogan could well be: minimal pain, lots of gain.
“I tried fitness centers,” said Alina Sander, a middle school teacher and the mother of a 4-year-old. “It didn’t work for me at all. It was too anonymous. Wendy’s really inspiring to me. Fitness is a lifestyle to her, and that’s what I want as a goal. I want to be a model to my kid and be healthy.
“(Two years ago) I didn’t exercise at all. And then the whole gym thing didn’t work. I thought I’d try again with this. I’m absolutely in better shape. Before, I couldn’t run a mile. Now I run three.”
The key, said Ash, is accountability.
“I know I have somewhere to be on a certain day at a certain time with people I want to be with,” she said.
If you skip a workout at a large health club, Hoag said, no one will notice. Miss a Moms in Motion night, and the other half-dozen to a dozen women take note.
“Honestly,” she said, “when I see what really brings them back week after week, it’s the accountability on the fitness part. Not only from me but from their teammates. But that’s the fun and social part, too. They cheer them on when they do well and help them out when they have other issues.”
Women need a social aspect to exercise, she said. A Dads in Motion group might be a harder sell.
“Men tend to reach out to each other in competition, whereas women reach out to relate to each other,” Hoag said. “That really helps in sticking with your fitness and pushing that extra mile.”
The sociability extends beyond the workout area. Hoag said the women occasionally meet socially and invite speakers to address their group on domestic issues, “whether it’s legal planning for your family or whether you should have your dryer vent cleaned.”
This melding of purpose is what drew Jaime Silvano, a mother with three children age 7 or younger who works full time.
“I actually joined Moms in Motion because I wanted some friends,” she said, smiling. “Being a mom is really isolating. I need it. It makes me calmer. I deal with stress better and I get a social life at the same time.”
The hourlong workout over, the women rolled up their mats and lingered. They chatted for a good 10 minutes until somebody realized the time and they went back to their busy, complicated lives. Until the next time they can manage to get away.
“A woman,” Hoag said, “really has to carve out some time for herself.”