Lauren Saks

Lauren Saks has drawn many people to her fitness classes.

Lauren Saks barely breaks a sweat as she jumps and squats while cheering on a panting crowd via her headset. You’d never know the leader of Fall into Fitness, a free group exercise class offered by the city of Phoenix through its FitPHX initiative, once avoided exercise.

“I used to actually hate it because it looked hard and it was intimidating,” said Saks, who also works as a volunteer coordinator at Hospice of the Valley. “Exercise could be boring and I didn’t have a lot of motivation to do it even though I knew it was important.”

Saks’ fitness journey began in 2011, when she was working in an office and spending most of the day sitting at her desk. She noticed the effect this lifestyle was having on her body and mind, and was tired of feeling low-energy, so she reluctantly joined a gym. She started with some of the facility’s group fitness classes.

“It wasn’t until I found Zumba — which was like exercise in disguise — that I really started to enjoy fitness,” said Saks. “When I started feeling stronger, that’s when fitness really started being more of my personal time. It was where I could release my stress and my anxiety.”

Saks attended more advanced classes and studied other exercise styles, such as P90X, Insanity Workout and Turbo Kick. Now she is a full-time fitness professional teaching at a variety of gyms and studios, as well as private classes. In fact, for about two years, Saks taught a fitness class just for Orthodox women. She also taught a Zumba class a The J.

“I really wanted to find a way to motivate and inspire others to live healthier lifestyles,” she said, “especially because I know fitness is not something that everybody loves.”

Last year, Saks brought that motivating approach to FitPHX, an initiative the city of Phoenix started in 2013 with the goal of improving the region’s health and wellness. In January of last year, she approached Anissa Edouard, FitPHX coordinator, with the idea of holding a series of fitness classes in a local park.

“I wanted to find a way to make fitness fun, to make it doable for people of all ages and all fitness levels,” Saks said. “I wanted to make it more like a party and to take the emphasis away from the exercise and just get people moving and doing something good for themselves.”

Edouard, always on the lookout for new ways to engage the community with social fitness activities, was interested, though she explained to Saks they would have to find a private entity to sponsor the program. They approached the AARP Arizona, which enthusiastically agreed.

Saks started her Fall into Fitness classes, which drew as many as 90 people, in October; the spring session ended in May. Her summer classes are set to begin June 19.

“We alternate the format every week so you get a taste of different types of exercise, because not everybody loves dance fitness, not everybody loves muscular conditioning, but they’re all important for overall physical health,” Saks explained.

In keeping with the goal of being inclusive of all ages and fitness levels, Saks has two instructors lead the classes with her. Each instructor presents a slightly different series of movements with varying intensity and impact.

Tracy Leonard-Warner, a member of Congregation Merkaz Ha-Iyr, really appreciated that aspect of the program when she took the classes in the fall.

“I am not an exercise person,” Leonard-Warner said. “When Lauren told me what the classes were going to be, I thought, ‘I am too old and out of shape to do that.’ But actually it was a lot of fun and I felt really good. If there’s a move you can’t do or it doesn’t feel right, there’s always some alternatives [that] somebody up in the front [is] showing you.”

Leonard-Warner was far from alone in her positive response to the program.

“We had such a huge turnout,” Edouard said. “When the spring series ended, people emailed saying, ‘Please do something in the summer that’s indoors, because it’s so hot and we don’t want to lose our momentum.’ ”

The AARP Arizona agreed to support the summer session as well.

“We are so excited to do this pilot,” Edouard said. “What I love about Fall into Fitness is it brings such a unique event to downtown Phoenix. It gets people of all different ages and different abilities of exercise to come out and have a good time.”

Summer classes will be held indoors at Phoenix Civic Space Park in the A.E. England Building. Other free indoor fitness activities, including WalkPHX, are available as well.

“I didn’t always love fitness,” said Saks, who co-chaired Honeymoon Israel with her husband, Samuel, and is otherwise active in the Jewish community. “But now I love it.”

Fortunately, other Phoenix residents can now share her inspiration. JN