Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bikes and Beaches – Exercise in Rio de Janeiro

The beach along Copacabana is an inspiration to anyone who wants to get into shape – and no, I am NOT talking about tiny bikinis.  

My husband Jeff and I came to live in Rio for a few weeks while he works at a university in town.  We rented an apartment along Copacabana, went grocery shopping and settled in.  Rio is one of the world’s great cities and there are many aspects to commend it.  However one aspect of the city that I am really impressed with is the easy availability of different ways to exercise and the extent to which the city supports and encourages everyone of every age to exercise. There is no reason not to exercise and,  especially as we age, so many reasons to keep or get in shape.  The city of Rio makes it easy!

Last Saturday we downloaded the Rio Bike rental app onto our smartphones, registered to become members and walked to the closest Rio Bike station.  The app includes a map of the many numbered stations in the city.  Each station is a bike stand that holds about twelve or more bright orange bikes, each secured to the rack with an anchor post that fits into a corresponding numbered receptor on the bike stand.  The smart phone app is brilliant.  Once registered and at a station, you log into your account, punch in the station number, enter the number of the bike you want and soon the green light that releases the bike lights up.  A sharp pull of the bike away from the rack and it is yours – free for an hour or less or just five reais (about 2 US dollars) if you bike more than an hour.  It was our first time at a bike station and we were a little hesitant.  A pretty young Carioca (people from Rio are called Cariocas) asked if we needed help.  She showed us the specific sequence needed to release the bike.  She wished us luck and rode off on her orange bike.  Jeff and I adjusted our saddle heights, checked the brakes and wheeled our bikes across the street.  There is a separated 2-way bike lane that parallels the beach all along Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon.  We took off and rode to the end of Leblon – a distance of about 6 miles.  The bikes are great – each has a built in basket, hand brakes and three gears.  We cruised happily along the path, passing some slower bikers and being passed by faster bikers.  Here and there we passed a runner or a skateboarder. 

It was Saturday afternoon and the beaches were full of sunbathers and footvolley players.  Footvolley is a crazy game invented in Rio that combines aspects of beach volleyball and football (soccer to North Americans).  Players follow the rules of beach volleyball but cannot use their hands and a soccer (football) ball replaces the volleyball.  It is fun to watch and the expert skill levels along the beach result in long volleys and excitement for the spectators.  The food kiosks were full of people enjoying themselves, eating, drinking, listening to music and watching the scene go by.  The bike path parallels a busy street in the transition between Copacabana and Ipanema but the low wall that separates the bikers from the traffic gives a feeling of safety.  I marveled at how Rio, which has a reputation for chaos and danger, can have such a safe and universally accessible bike path and rental system when in my USA home city of Seattle, Washington, which has a reputation for being bike-friendly, a woman was just killed while she was riding on a designated bike lane along a downtown street.  To be fair to Seattle that street now has a separated bike lane and that lane had been planned before the tragic death.  Unfortunately the plan didn’t happen in time to save the life of an innocent woman.  None of this is to say there are not dangers in Rio.  Of course there are but on Saturday afternoon, biking along on my orange bike, I was happy and grateful for the chance to rent a bike so easily and bike safely in my newly adopted city.  I would love to see a similar system in Seattle.  Perhaps one day it will happen.

As the week continues I am exploring more than Rio Bike.  The city is full of positive energy.  Rio is world famous so what was I expecting?  Copacabana beach is a perfect crescent moon of white sand and surf.  Along the beach stretches the Avenida Atlantica path, an iconic black and white mosaic sidewalk wide enough to hold at least ten people abreast.  The path is home to a continuous stream of people, retired couples walking arm in arm; young mothers pushing strollers; lovers of all ages sometimes kissing, sometimes strolling, sometimes watching the surf; runners; walkers; bikers; young kids chasing each other; surfers riding or coming in from the waves; just plain folks walking and people watching.   Most people are Cariocas but here and there a foreigner, a tourist like me, is part of the mix. 

My favorite time to walk along the beach is in the late afternoon.  That is when you realize that Cariocas really are mad about exercise.  Yesterday I left my apartment about 5 pm and went to a little park close by.  The park sports a veritable gymnasium of exercise equipment all provided by the Rio municipality.  There are elliptical trainers, lat pull and rowing machines, parallel bars, leg extension machines, and goodness knows what else.  It looks like a reduced, outdoors version of the weight room at my YMCA back home in Seattle.  The whole “gym” is just a few feet from the beach.  I chose an elliptical trainer and started to work out.  The machine was at least as good as ones I’ve used in gyms but the view was a whole lot better!  I looked out onto the beach and watched the surfers rise and fall with the waves.  Occasionally a surfer would catch a big wave and ride casually into the shallows.  There is something inspirational about watching a surfer ride a big wave.  It looks so effortless!  I know it isn’t but that is the charm and the compulsion of surfing.  When it works, it is perfect.  I worked out in parallel with another woman and a man…the elliptical machines are in stacks of three.  Around us I could see other people my age working out on the various machines.  I had to smile.  Here we all were, no one less than fifty years old and most of us well over sixty and we are all pushing and pulling on the machines, limbering up and strengthening our bodies.  After my set time on the elliptical I moved onto a set of upper body exercises on another machine.  The air was fresh; the temperature perfect.  A slight breeze blew off the ocean.  At one of the elliptical racks a woman from the Rio municipality explained correct technique to the three ladies working out.  Wow I thought to myself.  How great is it that?  This city is focused on improving the physical condition of its citizens.  When I finished the upper body exercises, I stretched and joined the parade of people walking along the sidewalk.  I had in mind about a 45-minute fast walk.  It was late afternoon and the men who rent beach chairs and umbrellas were stacking them up and moving them into storage for the night.  The lights were beginning to come on as I walked.  Dusk is surprisingly short in the tropics – so different from northern temperate endless summer evenings.  I reached my halfway point and stopped at one of the many stainless steel stretching stations.  These stations are set at regular intervals along the beach.  Each station has a poster that shows in diagrammatic form stretches for upper and lower body.  The equipment is simple but allows one to accomplish all the stretches.  I read the poster and tried out several of the stretches.  I was grateful for the instructions since, despite years of exercising, it is easy to forget to stretch enough.  Even when I remember I usually shortchange some part of my body!  As we age, stretching is at least as important as any other form of exercise.  It is always surprising to me how easy it is to get stiff – and it only seems to get worse the older I get.  I finished my stretching and turned around for the last part of my workout.  Thanks Rio!  Thanks for supporting the health and well being of us middle aged folks.


  1. What a wonderful post! Thanks for visiting me here in ONT!
    I try to work out every morning. Instead, today, I cleared some brush and used my reciprocating saw! I figured that would do!
    Grandkids are on their way. I shall pop back in!

    1. Great to hear from you Jennifer. I must miss now that it is getting close to October I miss the southern Ontario fall fairs. Take good care of that reciprocating saw…ouch don't want to make a mistake!