By Susan Thurston
Times Staff Writer
If we learned anything from the poor economy, it's that people love free stuff.
Free pie at the Village Inn on Wednesdays. BOGO deals at Publix. Free Fridays at the Tampa Museum of Art.
And, yes, even free workouts.
While health clubs, fitness studios and personal trainers have long promoted free introductory classes to pull people in, more and more are offering free sessions on a regular basis. The goals are multifold: create good will, build a community and, hopefully, grow their customer base.
"People need opportunities to take care of themselves that aren't hard on their wallets,'' said Roni Sloman, owner of Bella Prana Yoga and Meditation in Tampa.
Sloman decided to incorporate a free Sunday class at her new location opening today at 1000 E Kennedy Blvd. because she feels strongly that yoga should not just be for the wealthy.
Val Spies, owner of the Lotus Pond Center for Yoga and Health in Tampa, started free stress-relief classes on Monday nights when the economy took a tumble. She noticed people who lost their jobs had stopped coming or scaled back. She felt a duty to help them cope with the added stress.
Nearly five years later, the free yoga class is as popular as ever. Up to 40 people pack the place each week, many arriving early to get the best spots overlooking a waterfall. Spies weaves in humor and inspirational talk to motivate and relax her students.
"It's the highlight of my week,'' she said. "People are talking and laughing and really ready for it. There's a real community feeling. It's just great energy.''
Damon Reio leads a free boot camp class Saturday mornings at St. Pete's North Shore Park. Students do push ups and squats, work with dumb bells and bands, and beat tires with sledgehammers. For holidays, he incorporates a theme. For Easter, the class opened eggs containing different workout instructions.
"The workouts are always changing, so it's not a boring routine that your body gets used to,'' Reio said. "There's a lot of camaraderie and partner-type workouts. People know each other by name.''
The owner of Physiques by Damon Reio Training Studio in St. Pete, he started the free boot camps in 2008 to prove that people can get in shape without a personal trainer. The class began with two students and has grown to about 25, many of them first-timers not accustomed to strenuous exercise.
"I find that Saturdays are the most energy-driven boot camps that we have,'' he said. "We get a lot of folks who thank us afterward.''
Free classes can expose people to new regimes they otherwise wouldn't try. The Tampa Bay Fit Club meets Wednesday nights at Stars Athletics in Tampa. Members do cardio drills and body resistance training to a Beachbody home video aired on a big screen.
"Ninety-five percent of our goal is for people to have fun,'' said Bill Cowan, one of four coaches. "If they enjoy the workout, then they can talk to their coach.''
The club, which formed through Meetup.com, has more than 300 members and attracts up to 30 people a week, many of them couples. Coaches Buddy and Maria Coombs are married. Cowan and coach Mary Ann Brown met through the club and recently got engaged.
Casey Lynn came across the Tampa Fit Club through his Facebook friends. This club works out along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa one Saturday a month. The 26-year-old dental student enjoys exercising outdoors with a group and appreciates the instructors' motivation. Passersby always stop to inquire and are amazed that the class is free.
"Some people need that little extra push,'' he said. "It's nice to have those guys out there helping you and giving recommendations. You definitely get a good workout.''
Instructor Josh Dobbie, who works as a personal trainer, founded the Tampa Fit Club in November to build a network of health-conscious people. Too many don't know what do at a gym or feel intimidated, he said. This gives them face time with instructors in a no-pressure setting.
The classes are free to remove an excuse for staying home. Health tip posts on Facebook and Twitter keep people engaged.
"This helps people in the community, and we don't want to put a price tag on that,'' Dobbie said.