I have a rich exercise fantasy life; while running, I like to pretend I'm leading the New York City Marathon, and on the bike I imagine the bunny hill in my local park is really the biggest climb of the Tour de France. Hey, whatever gets me out there. And that's the point: Exercise should be fun, and matching your workout to your daydreams of being a pro quarterback or a member of the cast of A Chorus Line is a great way to do that. (The fun factor is important because boredom is one of the most common excuses for not exercising.) The good news is that even some of the more extreme training regimes have been tamed in classes for mere mortals. Suppose you want to . . .
Train as if it's your job to be fit. For firefighters and members of the military, being out of shape obviously has far greater consequences than not fitting into last summer's bikini. No wonder many of them flock to CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program aimed at improving general fitness. (As the company says, "Our specialty is not specializing.") Using equipment ranging from standard barbells to gymnastic rings and your own body weight, CrossFit classes teach you basic form and skills and then guide you through classes that include the "Workout of the Day," an ever changing, intense, and frankly often intimidating-appearing set of exercises, which may be short and brutal or longer and at a slightly easier pace, depending on the day. Indeed, CrossFit has a reputation as being for only the superfit. But all of the workouts can be modified even for folks who aren't particularly in shape, says David Osorio, head coach and owner of CrossFit South Brooklyn, where I took a class.
Our main workout, for example, was five dead lifts using a barbell followed by 10 "burpees" (squat, kick out your legs, do a pushup, come back to the squat, and leap as high as possible). Five times. As fast as you can. And there were a few people who whizzed their way through it (one guy finished when I was still in the middle of my third repeat). But plenty of others used much lighter weight and took it slow. Everyone finished, and the faster folks cheered for, rather than sneered at, us. Affiliates have leeway to develop their own programs and may attract different crowds depending on the location, so find one that feels right to you and has other beginners if you're not a pretty regular exerciser. If you're already an expert and don't want to take a class, you can get the workouts directly from crossfit.com and follow them on your own.
Dance like Debbie Allen. Typically, the choreography at aerobics classes that focus on dance moves is more Jane Fonda than Bob Fosse. But a growing number of classes at gyms and health clubs make you feel like a true dance student, without requiring that you already have technique. At Crunch Fitness's new "Fame" class, some participants wore old sweatpants and others looked as if they were headed to a Broadway audition—but everyone seemed to be having a good time. The workout is structured like a jazz dance class, with a warm-up, turns and movements across the floor, and learning a short routine before "performing" it for one another in groups. The nod to Fame came in the music—which included songs from both the original movie and the recent remake—and the choreography, which the instructor said was taken from the new movie and was doable for people with even a modicum of rhythm.
Do a ballerina's pliés. If your goal is less to shake your stuff and more to get the long, lean shape of a classical dancer, Physique 57, based in part on the dance-focused Lotte Berk Method—may be for you. In a studio with a barre, we did a series of isometric exercises and stretches using a few pieces of equipment, but mostly our body weight, via leg lifts, knee bends, and the like. Even if you're used to lifting heavy weights in the gym, what the company's website calls "Interval Overload" and I call "so many repetitions of a leg lift that I was begging for the end," is challenging—but not impossible. Just when I thought I couldn't take any more pulses, we'd retreat to the floor for some stretches. It may take a while to get used to the proper alignment for the exercises, but there are classes aimed specifically at beginners, and my instructor was careful to correct improper technique. Classes are available only in New York, but you can get the workout on DVD, available at physique57.com.
Snowboard sans snow. Or wakeboard without water—whatever your board-sports fantasy, the Indo Board balance trainer provides some serious off-season conditioning or just a fun workout. At the class I took at Crunch Fitness, we learned how to balance the flat, egg-shaped Indo Board on what looked like a miniature Bosu ball, and then, in a leap of faith, to actually plant one foot on either side of the board and balance without touching the ground. Our instructor soon had us incorporating other pieces of equipment—a weighted body bar and squishy ball—to work our arms and upper body muscles even as our lower bodies were shifting to avoid tipping over. Even for the balance-impaired, most of the exercises, including squats on the board and sit-ups and push-ups putting one arm or leg on the board, could be picked up in a few tries. The only one that passed me by: standing on one leg while passing the squishy ball back and forth between each hand. My core and lower body got a fantastic workout, and at the end, when we replaced the Bosu-like fulcrum with a hard roller, I got a sense of what it would be like to actually take off down the trail or in the waves. Luckily, we could hang on to the wall.
Fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Specifically, like a member of Cirque du Soleil, which helped (along with Reebok) to develop the class called Jukari Fit to Fly that I took at Equinox Fitness. (It's at other gyms, too.) I've considered and rejected the idea of taking a real flying trapeze class because I'm sure I'd be too chicken, so I was pleased to realize that we would not be suspended many feet off the ground or hanging by our knees. Using a piece of equipment called the FlySet, basically a bar suspended by straps from the ceiling, we warmed up and performed modified pull-ups and other upper body and core exercises. The instructor then taught us how to catch some air in the segment of the class that lifted our heartbeats—we held on to the bar, first ran forward, then quickly backward, jumped up, and, for a few seconds, our feet left the floor before we landed gracefully. Later on we took the bar away, hit the floor, and used the contraption's loops for push-ups and lower-body work—including doing an abs-busting plank with our hands on the ground in a push-up position and our feet in the loops. The high point was the chance to simply spin 360 degrees in the air, around and around, before the class ended.
Practice like an athlete. I never particularly envied my high school football team's late-August workouts; those conditioning programs frankly looked punishing. But I found my inner halfback at Velocity Sports Performance, which aims to develop overall fitness, including speed, strength, and agility, to improve performance in youth, college, pro, recreational, and even armchair athletes, whatever the sport. In the class I took, whose participants included a 10k runner and a squash player aiming to improve his footwork, we used a 35-yard indoor track straightaway to warm up and then build intensity over the course of an hour. That included agility work (quick footwork through a rope ladder placed on the ground and hopping over minihurdles), sprints up and down the track, and, toward the end, working with a partner to push a 45-pound weighted sled. Our coach said he matches difficulty to participants' abilities; he rated our class a 6 on a 1-to-10 scale of intensity. (That 6 was the hardest class I took in my sampling of fantasy workouts, so I have plenty of room to improve.) I took a class in Manhattan; find locations at velocitysp.com.