Thunderstorms during the evening will give way to partly cloudy skies after midnight. Low around 70F. Winds S at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 80%..

Thunderstorms during the evening will give way to partly cloudy skies after midnight. Low around 70F. Winds S at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 80%.

David Schneider, of Munster, sips a drink and relaxes before an appointment for a facial treatment at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Times health writer Giles Bruce gets a neck-and-shoulder massage from massage therapist Jennifer McHale at Halotherapy of St. John.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab treats Ben Dwyer of Lowell with ear candles at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.



The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a pedicure from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab gives Ben Dwyer of Lowell a high frequency tesla current treatment.  at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Ben Dwyer of Lowell gets a massage from therapist Mallory Reed at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce receives a pedicure from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab gives Ben Dwyer of Lowell a facial at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a pedicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a pedicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab gives Ben a high frequency tesla current treatment. Ben Dwyer of Lowell uses the spa services at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Times health writer Giles Bruce gets a neck-and-shoulder massage from massage therapist Jennifer McHale at Halotherapy of St. John.

Times health writer Giles Bruce gets a neck-and-shoulder massage from massage therapist Jennifer McHale at Halotherapy of St. John.

Ben waits in a massage chair in one of the relaxation rooms. Ben Dwyer of Lowell uses the spa services at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Ben gets a massage from therapist Mallory Reed. Ben Dwyer of Lowell uses the spa services at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

David Schneider, of Munster, sips a drink and relaxes before an appointment for a facial treatment at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael, right, does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael, right, does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael, left, does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

David Schneider, of Munster, sips a drink and relaxes before an appointment for a facial treatment at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

David Schneider, of Munster, sips a drink and relaxes before an appointment for a facial treatment at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Times health writer Giles Bruce gets a neck-and-shoulder massage from massage therapist Jennifer McHale at Halotherapy of St. John.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab treats Ben Dwyer of Lowell with ear candles at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a pedicure from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab gives Ben Dwyer of Lowell a high frequency tesla current treatment.  at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Ben Dwyer of Lowell gets a massage from therapist Mallory Reed at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce receives a pedicure from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab gives Ben Dwyer of Lowell a facial at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a pedicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a pedicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Esthetician Alli Schwab gives Ben a high frequency tesla current treatment. Ben Dwyer of Lowell uses the spa services at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Times health writer Giles Bruce gets a neck-and-shoulder massage from massage therapist Jennifer McHale at Halotherapy of St. John.

Times health writer Giles Bruce gets a neck-and-shoulder massage from massage therapist Jennifer McHale at Halotherapy of St. John.

Ben waits in a massage chair in one of the relaxation rooms. Ben Dwyer of Lowell uses the spa services at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

Ben gets a massage from therapist Mallory Reed. Ben Dwyer of Lowell uses the spa services at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point.

David Schneider, of Munster, sips a drink and relaxes before an appointment for a facial treatment at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael, right, does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael, right, does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

The Times health reporter Giles Bruce, left, receives a manicure treatment from nail technician Chelsea Leluga at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Aesthetician and skin therapist Lily Mikhael, left, does a facial treatment for David Schneider, of Munster, at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

David Schneider, of Munster, sips a drink and relaxes before an appointment for a facial treatment at Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville.

Water dripped on my head like a lovely thunderstorm, jets massaged my achy back and feet, warming purple lights pacified my soul. I had no frame of reference for the single-digit temps outside; I was engulfed in warmth; alone, the middle of a weekday, in my own private paradise.

I discovered nirvana again later that night in a dark room in Chesterton, caviar moisturizer on my face, my throbbing temples being rubbed — then again a few days later in Crown Point, cucumbers on my eyelids, a massage chair deeply kneading my most tender fibers.

As a public service, I was trying out popular men's spa treatments in the Region. I'm not ashamed to get a facial or a manicure. It turns out a lot of other guys in Northwest Indiana aren't either.

"When I started in the business (25 years ago), there were hardly any male spa-goers," said Peaches McCahill, a consultant for Spa Blu at Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa in Michigan City. "Men now make up a significant portion of our spa clientele, 20 percent and increasing." That spa recently added a new service for guys: a beard trim and conditioning.

Studies have found that massages help with things such as pain, anxiety, blood pressure, digestion, sleep and immunity.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should listen to the more outlandish claims of what these services can do; a Memorial Sloan Kettering researcher authored a 2012 report in Journal of Clinical Investigation decrying these after being told a facial would cleanse her liver.

But even on its own, relaxation has advantages for your health, even long-term ones such as reducing the risk of chronic medical conditions.

So it's not surprising that, in our increasingly wellness-focused culture, spa days aren't just for women anymore. The International Spa Association reports that nearly half of spa customers worldwide are men, up from less than a third a decade earlier. And in the U.S., 41 percent of spas surveyed by that organization last year said they planned to introduce promotions targeting guys.

Chris Valavanis, owner of Vanis Salon & Day Spa, said his location in Schererville (he also has one in Valparaiso) treats a lot of men interested in wellness because it's connected to Franciscan Fitness Health Centers.

"People come into spas for different reason than they used to," he said. "Some people are here for more of a treat and pampering. Some people are here just for maintenance — maintenance of their skin, body, brows."

He said about a fifth of his customers are men, ones "who care about how they look and feel, about their health."

Olga Pellegrino, director of operations for Vanis, said guys often come in to get waxed — mostly their eyebrows, but also their chests and backs.

I stopped by their spa last month to try out a manicure and pedicure — a "mani-pedi" in less macho speak.

My nail technician, Chelsea Leluga, told me she has a few male regulars. She said she's recently painted some of her guy clients' nails: a "manly man" blue before he went to Aruba, a grandpa with a tow truck he could show his grandson.

"My husband comes in here for a facial," said Becky Miles, a Munster property manager who sat next to me getting her own pedicure.

"I think that all guys should pamper themselves," Leluga said. "I think anyone should do this to make themselves feel good and less stressed."

I got a mani-pedi once before, maybe 10 years ago. I remember liking it, but that it was kind of painful.

Dudes often get pedicures for practical reasons, she noted: to have calluses removed, because we can't cut our own toenails. Nail technician Yari Creso, who called herself the "guy guru" for her ability to make male customers feel comfortable, said that after men come to the spa once — often dragged in by a wife or girlfriend — they almost always come back.

She's right. We millennials, the metrosexual, gender-fluid generation that we are, have less shame than our stoic, hidebound forefathers. Or maybe it's just the time we're living in.

Leluga, 28, said her dad gets pedicures; he loves paraffin wax, a warming treatment said to help with joint stiffness. A guy I met at Vanis who was getting a facial, David Schneider, is 72. Now retired, Schneider used to be the chief public defender for Lake County.

"To me it's relaxing, especially when I was working," he said. "It would be a getaway from the stress and tension of Crown Point."

After the euphoria of my whirlpool experience in Michigan City, I found myself face down on a massage table, CBD oil being rubbed into my extremities, for some deep-tissue action.

Massage therapist Barb Loeffler said people used to think of massages as a luxury; now they're a necessity, with all the sitting and typing on computers Americans do.

It turns out my biggest problem area is my shoulders, the result of what I'm doing as I write this, hunched over, staring at a screen. Loeffler helped me get out some knots, showed what I could do at home to keep them at bay. The encounter was more like a visit with a physical therapist or chiropractor than an indulgence.

Next, I headed over to Serenity Salon & Spa in Chesterton for the "men's fit" facial, one specifically designed for the boys. Spa director Julianna Rospond explained that guys' skin is different than women's — thicker, rougher, more hydrated — so their skin treatments have to be different.

"I think the stigma is going away," she said of fellas hitting the spa. "People are very stressed in this area. You're also exposed to a lot of pollution" — the spa serves men (and women) who work in the mills — "A lot of these treatments are detoxifying."

I arrived for my facial, changed into a robe, lay under some blankets and was told I didn't have to do anything but relax.

Since the room was dark, I had no idea what Rospond was doing to my face — the only hint was when I scratched near by ear and she said I wiped some of the caviar lotion off — but it felt heavenly.

This was like no other facial I've ever had. Past ones were quite agonizing in fact; I mostly thought of them as acne excavations. This one featured massaging of the head and shoulders, even the feet (not sure what they have to do with the face, but I wasn't complaining). It was soothing, tranquil, an hour of pure bliss.

Of course, going to the spa isn't cheap. If I was a trust-fund kid who didn't have to work, I'd be there all day. Alas, my dad drove a truck for a living.

But deals for spa services can be found on places such as Groupon. And as the benefits of "self-care" emerge, these treatments can be thought of as preventive health care, potentially heading off medical issues (not that your insurer is likely to cover them).

I, for one, realize I need to at least make massages a more regular part of my life. In the days after the one at Blue Chip, I realized I felt happier — and the only difference was that I'd gotten the deep-tissue kneading. Massages release "feel good" hormones such as endorphins and dopamine, so how are they any less effective than, say, an antidepressant or an opioid painkiller?

For the sake of objectivity, I also tried a Swedish (i.e. "girly") massage at State of Mind Salon & Day Spa in Crown Point. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was by no means some feathery rubdown. The masseuse, Alli Schwab, worked my muscles and pretzeled my legs and arms to great relief. Of the two types of massages, I may have preferred this one (though the deep tissue probably has more lasting benefits. See: pain now, pleasure later).

"The ladies still visit the spas to relax. Men visit the spa out of necessity, for range of motion. They can't turn their head all the way to the side or move their shoulders. They look at a computer screen all day or do heavy lifting," she said.

She said her male clientele has increased to 40 percent from 20 percent  in the last half-decade. Her salon now has a barber.

"I think there's a need for the physical part of wellness for men that maybe they didn't understand or weren't educated about five or six years ago," she said. "It's socially more acceptable to take time to get a massage or go get a pedicure."

Like Schneider, the public defender, I could care less about being judged for going to the spa. I'm not in middle school; no need to prove my masculinity.

If something can help me chill, get me out of my head for a bit, maybe relieve some pain and tension, who cares what anyone else thinks? That seems to be where our society is at nowadays, and that's a good thing.

So go on my brothers, get your nails buffed, your face exfoliated, your feet covered with hot oil. Hold your head up high — especially after the masseuse gets rid of those kinky knots in your upper back.

SCHERERVILLE — I was admittedly nervous the day before I was supposed to go into a sensory deprivation tank.

The thought of floating in salt water, inside an enclosed chamber, pitch black with no sound, was a scary one.

I arrived at Float Sixty, a new float therapy studio in Schererville — Northwest Indiana's first — with an open mind. I didn't drink caffeine beforehand, as the instructions suggested. I was ready to let go (or at least try to).

I was greeted by Gloria Morris, the studio's owner and St. John resident who gives off the spirited-yet-carefree vibe of someone who has done her fair share of floating. The place, which opened March 11, has a spa feel, with waves carved in the walls and TVs playing whales and seals swimming in the ocean.

With cryotherapy, you stand inside a canister chilled to 220 degrees below zero, for two minutes, with only your head sticking out. It looks like, as The Economist aptly described it, "a galactic witch’s cauldron," with icy vapor pouring out the top.

I disrobed and put on a robe, then donned ski gloves, knee-high socks and Crocs to protect my extremities. My photographer wondered if I would end up like Han Solo in "The Empire Strikes Back," frozen in carbonite.

I handed her my robe and she turned the machine on, pumping freezing liquid nitrogen into the chamber. It felt like gentle pin pricks against my skin.

It got colder and colder. Moving helps lessen the cold, Morris told me. To withstand it, I danced around like a kid who had to pee.

Morris said cryotherapy benefits people with chronic pain and athletes recovering from workout, as it reduces inflammation and lactic acid. (The Food and Drug Administration, however, has not cleared cryotherapy devices as having any health benefits.)

It wasn't as cold as I thought it would be. It felt like the opposite of being in a hot tub, intense yet tolerable for a brief period of time. Still, I counted down the seconds till my session ended.

When I exited the compartment, I was glad to be out. All in all, though, it was kinda cool, to forgive the pun.

Morris showed me the traditional tank, an 8-by-5-foot capsule that had a door that looked like the hatch to a submarine. I was claustrophobic just looking at it.

Then she took me to my float room. Instead of a tank, this space was the size of a whirlpool, with a sloping ceiling and a shower door.

I showered, put in ear plugs as Morris recommended, and got into the tank. It was filled, 10 inches deep, with 200 gallons of water, heated to 93 degrees, plus 1,500 pounds of Epsom salt. The salt not only buoys you but the magnesium in it is said to help with muscle relaxation and joint stiffness. (It's why doctors often recommend soaking body parts in Epsom salt).

I lay there, nude, for a few moments before the lights went out, putting me in the most complete darkness I've ever experienced. It was completely silent.

A colleague asked if the tanks were meant to mimic a coffin. I'll admit: I did think about my own mortality when I was in there. It made me contemplate what happens when the lights go out forever.

And that's what I spent my time in there doing: thinking. Being alone with my thoughts is not the most pleasant place to be. Plus, I was anxious at first, so my mind was racing.

I also kept wanting to strain my neck to keep my head up. Morris, however, assured me it would just float. I eventually let go, and my ears sunk below the surface of the water while my face stayed above.

After about 15 or 20 minutes, I got comfortable and started feeling, oddly, calm. I was released from all the distractions of daily life: traffic, answering emails, the constant buzzing of my smartphone.

My senses were mostly inactive: I couldn't see, could hardly smell anything, there was nothing to hear or taste. Eventually, I melded with the water and wasn't feeling anything either.

"It's a great relaxation experience," Morris said. "It helps suppress your nervous system so you're not in that fight-or-flight mode. I describe it as feeling more high definition once you get out." Some studies have found that sensory deprivation can help relieve pain, stress and depression.

As the time wore on, I didn't want the experience to end. While I never fully stilled my mind, I was calmer by the finish. Morris said people often fall asleep in the chamber; I never got close to that but I could see it happening if I tried it again.

A light turned on when the 60-minute session was over. I got out, showered and got dressed. I felt relaxed, like I had just got out of a sauna or woke up from a nap.

Morris first tried floating in April 2015. She was amazed the effect it had on her sleep. She opened her first studio, in Chicago's River North neighborhood, nine months later ("It was like having a child," she said).

I was testing out the GlideFit CardioWave class at Community Hospital Fitness Pointe in Munster, where, in the gym's pool, participants stand on workout boards — like thick, rectangular paddleboards — and do a variety of strength, balance and flexibility exercises.

The so-called "floating fitness" course mixes aquatic-based stability training with high-intensity interval training.

The gym started offering the class a couple months ago, as part of its small group training program. CardioWave, developed by a Salt Lake City fitness company, is open to members and nonmembers alike. So far, it's been well-received. Participants range in age from 24 to 70.

"I love it," said Dani Pillon, an athletic trainer at Fitness Pointe and Whiting High School. "I usually don't take classes. It's different, which is what I like. It's so fun it doesn't feel like a workout."

Pillon was one of the more enthusiastic participants in the class I took Tuesday. She and her friend, Corryn Poby, a fellow athletic trainer at the gym, fell off their boards more than anyone else. Not because they were clumsy — but because they were attempting daredevil moves, like trying to do 360-degree spins without falling off their board.

"These are my craziest two," class instructor Patty Grill said of Pillon and Poby, as they splashed in the water. "They're probably going to try to get you off (the board) so you better be ready to get wet."

"That's the goal: to stay on the board," said Nikki Sarkisian, exercise program manager at Fitness Pointe.

I kept vertical for the first half of the class, until I jinxed myself with the aforementioned statement. But it turns out, falling into a pool during an intense exercise session isn't the worst thing in the world (Pillon hit her head on the board during one fall, but she bounced right back).

The boards are wobbly. They're tied to the pool's lane dividers with bungee cords (I had four; the more daring people only had two).

The class tests your balance, your core strength, your endurance. Other people teetering their boards creates waves in the water, making it that much harder to stay upright.

It's a challenging workout. At one point, I couldn't tell if I was drenched in sweat or wet from the pool.

We did pushups, situps, planks, lunges, yoga and Pilates poses. I at least attempted all the moves, sometimes unsuccessfully, as I tried to straighten the foundation of my leaning-tower self. There were a lot of things going on at once.

I got braver as the class wore on. By the end, I was able to do a 180-degree flip without tipping over.

ST. JOHN — I sat on a reclining lawn chair surrounded by 20,000 pounds of salt shipped in from the Himalayan mountains, salt underneath my feet, salt on the walls, salt being pumped into the air, salt lamps providing the light.

I was trying halotherapy, a form of alternative medicine involving exposure to salt-laden air, at Halotherapy of St. John, the Region's first salt cave.

"Lay back, let the music play and let the salt take you over," employee David Dunning said before shutting the door to the cave.

I reclined back in my chair, classical music pumping through the speakers, fake stars on the ceiling, and let the salt cave engulf me.

One of the first things I noticed was that I was able to breathe more deeply than I had in some time. It's that time of year for allergies and colds, so this came as a welcome relief.

I could see the clouds of salt pumping from the vents. I could taste it if I breathed through my mouth.

I don't know whether it was the salt or the ambiance, but I felt relaxed. So much so I drifted in and out of sleep.

Salt therapy may be new to the Region, but it's been around for more than 150 years. It originated in the 19th century, when a Polish physician discovered that people who worked in salt mines had fewer lung and skin problems than coal miners. About a century later, a German doctor noticed that World War II soldiers hiding out in salt caves had improved health.

There have been no clinical studies of halotherapy in the United States, though research in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 found that people with cystic fibrosis who inhaled hypertonic saline had improved lung function. On the flipside, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says breathing in salt could constrict the airways.

Regardless of what the research says or doesn't say, some people in Northwest Indiana swear by salt therapy.

Two women from Highland — Peggy Franiak and Donna Zehner — sat across from me during the recent session.

"When I came in here I was huffing and puffing," Franiak said afterward, taking off her sock covers and putting back on her shoes. "And now" — she took a deep breath — "I can breathe."

"I have asthma," Zehner said. "When I'm in there, I can actually take that deep breath and feel the lungs expand."

She already has done a few sessions and says the effects last for days after, when she is less reliant on her inhaler.

Beyond that, she said the treatments are simply relaxing, akin to a massage. She said her mind stops racing when she's in the cave.

Co-owner Allan Updike opened the business after looking for treatments for family members with allergies. He learned about halotherapy and visited a salt cave in Illinois. After he walked out, he said, his sinus headache was gone.

The 45-minute sessions cost $30 a piece. Updike said the business treats lifelong smokers, young people with acne problems, and athletes who want improved breathing function. He noted that insurance pays for the therapy in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada but not the U.S.

"I would be out of breath by now," Franiak said after her session, walking back from the bathroom. "That short little trip."

The science on salt therapy may be unsettled. But anecdotally, during my treatment I could breathe better and felt super relaxed. And I didn't want the session to end.

I completed the new Warrior Course on Wednesday at Sky Zone Trampoline Park. Well, the easy section, at least.

The indoor family entertainment center in Schererville recently opened several new exhibits, such as a rock-climbing wall and jousting ring, inspired by sports competition shows like "American Ninja Warrior."

I didn't know much about the new activities before I showed up Wednesday. As the Times fitness-experimenter-in-chief, I just go wherever my editor tells me to.

First up was the aforementioned Warrior Course, an obstacle course where you have to climb, balance and swing across a cushioned moat.

The course has three levels of difficulty: easy, medium and hard. Of course, as this newspaper's exercise guinea pig, I had to try all three. Court supervisor Adam Zehner, who is much younger and in better shape than me, scared me when he said he couldn't do the "hard" course.

The exhibit started off easy enough. I skirted across a balance beam, swung on basketballs tied to ropes and climbed a wall made of netting.

I got halfway through the "medium" course when, trying to pull myself from one end of the pit to the other while tangling from a sheet of glass attached to ropes, I took a dive into the padding. I fell again while swinging on a net full of basketballs.

As for the "hard" course? Forget it. I won't bother to describe the obstacles, other than to say if you're not climbing Mount Everest you probably won't be able to do any of them. Or maybe I just need to hit the gym more.

Next up was the Warped Wall, an inclined ramp that you have to run up, grab a metal bar and pull yourself up. On the first few tries up the shorter, 10-foot wall, I had no idea how I was going to do it. Then Zehner told me to hop like Super Mario.

I ran, jumped like I was crushing a Goomba (for all you Nintendo fans), grabbed the bar and yanked myself to the top, surprising myself in the process.

Then it was time for the 12-foot ramp. For some reason, it seemed twice as high. Suffice to say, I didn't make it.

I moved on to the Free Climb wall. I began on the less difficult side and made it all the way to the top.

It felt so high it seemed like I was atop Everest. I climbed down a few pegs and jumped into the fluffy blocks.

I tried a more difficult path up the wall and made it again. (Again, I wimped out on letting go from the very top.)

On the more difficult wall, which had an incline, I got about halfway up before I fell into the great foam beyond.

After that, I took on a teenager in a round of SkyJoust, where the goal is to knock your opponent off his pedestal with a foam jousting pole.

When Cameron Westerman, a court monitor at SkyZone half my age, got on his platform across from me, I was nervous.

But when we started to joust and he didn't immediately knock me off, I thought, I can do this. I pushed him with my pole into the foam pit.

"No," he said, climbing back onto his platform. "But I've got shoes on. It's harder." (I was wearing my slip-resistant Sky Socks.)

The second time, he caught me off balance, hitting me off my pedestal. On the third and deciding round? I won. Not too bad for an oldish guy.

The last new exhibit at Sky Zone was the Sky Ladder, a fidgeting rope ladder, the kind you see at every carnival.

On my first few forays, I couldn't even make it to the third rung before flipping the ladder over and slipping off.

I walked back across the foam blocks in triumph (though walking through foam blocks hardly appears triumphant, as you look like a drunken elderly person).

The new exhibits at Sky Zone are super challenging and a great workout. (By the end, I was winded and sweating.) They test your strength, agility and balance, letting you know where you might stand to improve physically.

They're also fun activities for parents and kids to do together. (Moms and dads, don't be surprised if your children do better than you.)

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, let the sun gently warm my face, listened to the breeze rustling the leaves.

I tried Horse & Yoga recently in LaPorte, fully intending to write a wacky article about a seemingly wacky idea. But the session actually taught me a lot about horses — and myself in the process.

"Horses mirror you," Deauke Robbens, owner of Barn Santé and Horse & Yoga instructor, told me before the class. "They feel your vibes big time. If you are calm, you will calm them down. If you are nervous, they will get a little bit nervous. It's like self-reflection of what state of mind you're in."

This had me worried. I'm normally an anxious person. And I'd been a little more stressed than usual in the weeks leading up to this day. Was the horse really going to pick that up?

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce follows instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce does a pose in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce does a pose in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce does a pose in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Deauke Robbens, owner of Barn Santé, talks about her horse, Luke, and how he helps yoga participants.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce follows instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce does a pose in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce does a pose in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce does a pose in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Deauke Robbens, owner of Barn Santé, talks about her horse, Luke, and how he helps yoga participants.

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

Robbens led me out from the barn to meet Luke ('lùːka), a 16-year-old Friesian horse the color of dark chocolate. She told me to take off my shoes. I did, keeping an eye out for horse poop.

She had me do a tree pose with my right hand on Luke's shoulder. She said that if he was nervous, he would move in the opposite direction. Almost as soon as I touched him, he slowly backed away, like a person who walked into a room where people were fighting.

"Watch your feet," Robbens said. "He will just think they are rocks." Oh, great, I thought, another thing to make me nervous.

As I did the poses, the horse started sniffing me. At one point, he nibbled on my arm, causing me to jerk back and increase the tension level.

The horse and I weren't jiving, so Robbens had me go on the other side of his stand to continue my poses.

Eventually, I relaxed, and the horse did, too. He kept his head down, eating hay, a sign he was comfortable. He started licking my hand, making me laugh.

"Being around horses is also about letting go of ego," she said. "I don't know if I heard the quote or if I invented it. I think I heard it and stole it: 'If you have no expectations, everything is a gift.'"

I returned to the side of the stand Luke was on. I did a few warrior poses next to him. He ignored me, tending to his hay.

Eventually, it was time to mount him. Robbens and I weren't sure I was ready at first, but we both acknowledged how much he and I had calmed down.

Robbens, who emigrated to LaPorte from Belgium three years back after her husband's job was relocated here, calls the class Dances with Horses. "Because you actually dance with the horse, and the horse moves," she said. She had to travel to Florida to get certified in Horse & Yoga.

As The Times' fitness-experimenter-in-chief, aka the paper's exercise guinea pig, I am decidedly not scared nor ashamed.

She said Horse & Yoga also teaches people compassion for animals. Horses, like humans, don't necessarily want you in their space.

"People have their bubbles. If you don't know me and I come talk close to you, you would feel uncomfortable and so then you would kind of step away," she explained. "Horses have a bubble as well. We as humans don't often respect the bubbles of animals. We think we own them and control them.

"If you want to respect them, tune into them and maybe see if they don't want to be touched. We always touch, touch, touch. Because we want that. They're maybe not asking for it."

Most people's experiences with horses — like mine, before this — came with horseback riding. But that was an artificial experience, Robbens said, with a horse that had likely grown immune to human touch. Luke, she said, is more along the lines of what a normal horse is like.

By the end of the session, I was doing eagle stretch and arch stretch poses atop the gentle beast of an animal. He and I really were "dancing." We were in unison. I didn't want to get off.

I was about to undergo hypnosis for the first time. I was worried I was going to do or say something whacky in front of my photographer, John J. Watkins, who had a video camera at the ready just in case I did.

I would say I'm skeptical yet open. I'm a reporter, so I get paid to not accept claims on their surface. Yet I'm willing to try anything.

Just as the practice of hypnosis itself is far different than some of the assumptions many people have about it, so too are the actual methods by which practitioners like John Vurpillat, of NWI Hypnosis Center in Crown Point, help put their patients at ease.

Contrary to popular belief, the goal is not necessarily to get the subject into a deep, all-encompassing trance, but rather to simply make sure he or she is in a fully relaxed and open state. This involves not clichéd hypnotic tropes like a swinging pocket watch and repeated incantations of “you are getting very sleepy” as much as just calming talk and encouragement, often accompanied by soothing music or ambient sounds. Once patients are fully relaxed and present in the moment, Vurpillat says they tend to be more likely to clearly see the goal they’re working toward and ready to do something about it.

“Hypnosis is simply a heightened state of relaxation which becomes a heightened state of awareness, so now the subconscious mind can affect the change,” he says. “We’re looking to get that ‘wow’ moment when they really start to see how their life can be different and they’re inspired to take the steps to get there.”

That's how I found myself on the fluffy chair at NWI Hypnosis Center in Crown Point, wearing headphones, as hypnotist John Vurpillat hovered over me, giving commands.

Moments earlier, he determined I was a candidate for hypnosis, that I was "suggestible." He did this by having me clasp my hands out in front of me, like I was pointing two guns at him. He then told me to imagine my index fingers getting closer together, as he cranked an imaginary vice. Amazingly, they came together.

Vurpillat assured me that I would be in total control while I was hypnotized, that I wouldn't do anything crazy. In other words, I wouldn't be clucking like a chicken. That's for stage hypnotists, he said, in a nose-thumbing tone.

As he started, most of the requests involved relaxing, to which I obliged. I fell further and further into a state of calm. I let go.

Vurpillat's voice became less porous as I drifted away. Earlier in the session, he had asked me what I would like to fix about myself. I said self-criticism. During hypnosis, he gave me suggestions, designed to boost my confidence.

It felt like I was in a deep state of meditation. It eventually morphed into a hallucinatory, dreamlike state, like a cross between daydreaming and being asleep. I saw lights flashing and colors streaming in front of my eyes (this could have been because the sun was shining through the window, which was open so my photographer had light). I came in and out of the hypnosis at times as I remembered where I was. But I tried to give in.

Vurpillat then put on a CD that played through my headphones. The hypnotist on the recording told me to relax further, to become completely tranquil. Interwoven in the background were whispered affirmations, meant to penetrate the subconscious.

He instructed me to count backward from 100, imagining the numbers floating away. I saw most of the numbers, which looked like the type of cartoon blocks you might see on "Sesame Street," fly into space, putting me further into my trance.

When Vurpillat brought me out of it, a few moments later, I felt like I had woken up from a nap. I was euphoric the next few hours. I was in a good mood the next few days, though I'm not sure if I would have been anyway.

Hypnosis seems to be proliferating in the Region, with many local hypnotists and counselors offering the kind of hypnotherapy I underwent to treat everything from anxiety to smoking. And residents are trying it.

Katie Wandasiewicz, of Valparaiso, says hypnosis reduced her chest pain, helped her get over a breakup, assisted her in losing weight and inspired her to write more.

"You get to meet a whole new part of yourself," she said. "You're meeting your subconscious mind. I think it's strange how much it affects your body on a cellular level. My cells feel happy after I see (the hypnotist). It's been amazing for me."

Wandasiewicz, a 27-year-old clinical dietitian, said hypnosis gives her a boost of energy and inspiration. She estimates hypnosis does 40 percent of the work, while she does the rest. She liked hypnosis so much she got trained to become a practitioner herself.

Sharon Vester, of Crown Point, went to a hypnotist to try to lose weight. She said the experience has improved her self-confidence and taught her things about herself she didn't know. She describes hypnosis as a "meditative time to realize some things about yourself."

"It's a blend of coaching and self-discovery," said Vester, 64, a retired educator. "I think it's always helpful to have someone to talk to about those kinds of things."  

The Mayo Clinic, which uses hypnosis for pain management, says hypnosis can help people cope with pain, stress and anxiety, and may be effective as "part of a comprehensive program for quitting smoking or losing weight." However, the clinic noted that some people "may not be able to enter a state of hypnosis fully enough to make it effective."

"They have to be open to it. They have to be suggestible," said Bob Kallus, a Valparaiso counselor who uses hypnotherapy with about 20 percent of his clients. "There is a percentage of people who simply don't open their minds to this. I would say the more 'left brain' you are, the less likely you are to be suggestible, the more analytical, the more Spock-like."

Studies have also found that hypnosis can help with irritable bowel syndrome, hot flashes, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

While local hypnotists say health care professionals sometimes refer patients to them, the mainstream medical community in Northwest Indiana does not appear to have fully embraced hypnosis. A spokesman for Franciscan Alliance said the hospital system does not perform or refer for hypnosis. Spokeswomen for Community Healthcare System and Porter Health Care System said they weren't aware of any of providers in their systems who feature hypnosis as part of their practice.

Mary Lou Meyers, of Lowell, started doing hypnosis in December. She has since lost 40 pounds, by following the tips her hypnotist gives her when she is in the trance-like state.

"It made me more aware of what I'm eating and what I'm doing," the 63-year-old retiree said. "I researched a lot more to find out a better way to diet, which I did and I'm eating totally different now. It encourages you to stay on the diet."

Randi Light, a hypnotist in Ogden Dunes, said the practice can build confidence and strengthen your ego. "It's such a stress-reduction session," she said. "Hypnosis can melt the stress chemicals out of the body. People feel better emotionally and physically. It's amazing."

She asserted that 95 percent of behaviors stem from the subsconscious. Hypnosis works by programming that subconscious mind with suggestions for success.

There are no licensing requirements to be a hypnotist in Indiana. Tim Shurr, of Indy Hypnosis, said that a few years ago out-of-state hypnotists were coming into Indiana and doing shows to sell supplements afterward. So some Indiana hypnotists got together to create legislation to stop that.

A license in Indiana required 500 hours of classroom education, Shurr said, whereas the certification from the National Guild of Hypnotists requires only 100. Shurr said the law "went overboard," so it was eventually repealed.

The average hypnotherapy session costs between $75 and $125, according to the American Association of American Hypnotherapists. Health insurance sometimes, but rarely, covers it.

Vurpillat, the Crown Point hypnotist, thinks hypnosis may be one of the most important exercises for people to consider when they’re battling a wellness issue such as weight management or smoking cessation.

“The goal of hypnosis is to help people change their behavior by getting them to focus on what they want instead of focusing on what they don’t want,” he said.

“The idea is to help patients see the outcome that they want so they can start to make the changes in their life needed to reach that outcome. For example, someone battling a weight problem already knows that overeating and not exercising are bad — the key is to give them the motivation and the desire to reverse those behaviors and work toward the outcome of a healthier lifestyle.”

Vurpillat says one of the first steps for most prospective patients is simply getting over their assumptions and misconceptions about hypnosis.

Because hypnosis has long been seen as a trick or a performance in popular culture, many people come to the practice with notions of what to expect, if not skepticism about its ability to help with their problems. That’s why the NWI Hypnosis Center offers a free consultation before initiating a treatment program — to show people what hypnosis is, and isn’t, about. What does a treatment program entail?

“It’s not against religion, and it’s not about getting someone to bark like a dog,” Vurpillat says. “There’s no magic to it at all. It’s just a way of helping the patient to see what’s possible.”

While hypnosis is being used more and more in the medical community — a recent Wall Street Journal article cited several high-profile facilities such as Northwestern Memorial Hospital employing hypnosis with patients to help relieve pain and stress associated with conditions such as gastrointestinal distress — Vurpillat says the focus at NWI Hypnosis Center is on behavioral and wellness-related issues such as weight loss, smoking cessation and anxiety reduction.

Regardless of the underlying issue, however, he notes that the goal of hypnosis is the same — to inspire the patient to make changes needed to fix a problem and lead a healthier life.

“All hypnosis is self-hypnosis,” he explained. “We don’t hook anyone up to wires or put drugs in their system or anything like that. We just simply get people to see what changes they need to make and what they need to do to make them.”

LAPORTE — When Bill Higbie invited me to go mountain biking with him and a group of guys recently, I'm not sure what I expected.

When I showed up to the Soldiers Memorial Park trail, however, I met dudes wearing helmets and elbow and knee pads, on bikes that cost a few thousand dollars, across the street from a forest preserve. These were not paved trails.

Higbie, who runs the Porter County Community Foundation, and other mountain biking enthusiasts get together a few times a week at trails in the Region (the others are Outback Trail at Imagination Glen, in Portage, and Bluhm County Park Trail, in Westville). There are local Facebook groups dedicated to the sport: Outback has one; Valparaiso Mountain Bike Association is another. This is a world I didn't know existed in Northwest Indiana.

"It's a mental release," said Higbie, 52, of Knox. "It's a physically demanding sport, and it's fun while you're at it."

I first noticed that you sit high on a mountain bike, higher than a street version. Other riders told me only to use my rear brake — unless I wanted to flip over the handlebars — and to keep my weight back.

It was scary at first. The trail was hilly, covered with rocks, sticks, tree roots. I rode cautiously, slowly, braking often.

Higbie, my guide, rode in front of me, and another guy tailed me. The rest of the group left us in the dust (literally actually — the trail was made up of dirt, sand and mud).

One rider told me about a peer who had recently broken a bunch of bones on the trail. As I do with a lot of these fitness assignments, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

But the more I rode, the more comfortable I got. Mountain biking takes strategy. You've got to see what's coming ahead — an uphill climb, a downhill one — and speed up or slow down accordingly, letting your momentum carry you. It was hard to be too calculated on my first-ever ride, though, when I was mostly looking at what was directly in front of me so I wouldn't fall.

My fellow riders told their personal stories of getting hooked on mountain biking. I could see how the sport could be addictive, every time I cruised down a hill, the wind carrying me, blowing past my face. All around me were trees, brush, green. I saw deer. Immersing yourself in nature has been shown to have health benefits. Part of it must be the way it calms you.

I was sweating almost from the get-go. The ride is taxing, physically and mentally. But it's a great workout, perfect for people who want to be active yet can't stand the treadmill or elliptical.

Along the trail, which is maintained by volunteers, were obstacles: ramps, logs, bridges. I got caught up on several of them. Again, it was strategic. You had to have enough speed, and your pedals level, to get over them. On one, I almost took a spill. Almost.

After about forty-five minutes, we re-emerged from the forest, sweaty, dirty. I had to catch my breath.

By the end, having gotten over my initial fear, I agreed with Higbie: Mountain biking is an enjoyable, exciting way to exercise.

It's not for everyone. The cost of entry isn't attainable for all: Bikes range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. And you have to be a bit of a daredevil.

I heard the woosh of a flame igniting, and experienced what felt like a hot, solid, suction cup being stuck to my back.

I was trying cupping, an ancient alternative-medicine technique that is said to help relieve muscle tension and boost blood circulation. More recently, it's been popularized by athletes and celebrities such as Michael Phelps and Gwyneth Paltrow.

As he explained it, the cups were pulling up the blood and other "junk" that wasn't circulating, deep in my back, essentially detoxifying and bringing fresh blood to my muscles.

After about five minutes, Schlank popped the eight or so glass cups off my back — POP! — and I felt a prickling sensation with each one.

I'm not alone in Northwest Indiana in getting "cupped." Acupuncturists, athletic trainers and massage therapists across the Region are offering it, and some local say residents say they're getting results.

Nationally, however, some medical experts have questioned the effectiveness of cupping, noting there have been no large clinical trials of the practice, and thus wonder whether the pain and bruising — and money — are worth it (a cupping session can cost anywhere from $20 to $80).

Cupping practitioners also don't have to be certified in Indiana, and the quality of training is varied.

But Mike Regnier, of Dyer, says he believes it's helped improve his circulation and lessen pain in his body.

"The process is pretty much relatively pain free, but the pressure of the cups can get a little intense at times," the 45-year-old said, noting that he also looks like a giraffe, with purple spots on his body, for about a week and a half afterward.

Jenna Lis, a 16-year-old high-school basketball player from Hobart, says she has used cupping to relieve an ankle sprain and tight muscles.

Audric Warren, an athletic trainer and owner of Effort: Performance & Rehabilitation in Dyer, uses cupping in conjunction with other treatment methods in to help athletes recover from one game and prepare for the next. He said it has added range of motion and decreased pain among his clients.

He compares cupping to the filtration system in a fishtank. The practice clears out the "cloudy water" in the lymphatic system — muscles tight from overuse, sitting too much, poor diet — and cleans up the lymphatic system.

"Now the body can heal better, because it can move better," he said. "Our body is designed to move. Essentially the better we move, the better we heal, the better we can perform in our daily activities as well as competition."

Warren suggested Taylor Menke, a 17-year-old Andrean High School student, try cupping last year after she was sore from the traveling softball season.

"I just went in and asked what he could do to help me, and he did that and it helped so much," she said.

She cups about every two months, whenever her muscles are tight, and says it's more effective than other techniques she's tried, like resting or icing.

Lori Glines, a massage therapist and esthetician at C.J. Warren Salon & Spa in Crown Point, pairs cupping with massage to help clients with everything from muscle recovery to stress to asthma. She says she wouldn't do it on someone with bulging discs and open adhesions, and knows areas to avoid, such as varicose veins.

"By placing the cups on a certain area, the skin, the fascia will come up," she said. "Instead of creating that pressure that we push with (during massage), you can get much deeper by bringing up the area that has stagnation in the blood, stagnation in the tissue."

Rebecca Sasak, an acupuncturist with Thrive Center for Integration & Healing in Chesterton, says cupping is an "old-world technique" that's been a home remedy in places such as Greece, Mexico and South America for hundreds of years: The wife would often do it on the husband's back after a long day of work.

She said wherever there's not blood flow there's "disharmony and pathology" — inflammation, disease — and cupping brings circulation back to spots where it's been lagging, such as connective tissues. She said cupping restores "chi," the Chinese term for the body's life force energy.

"Cupping therapy is really the quickest way to reactivate fresh blood flow and stimulate the body's own healing," she said.

Martin, the Times photographer, later told me what the process looks like: Schlank lit an alcohol-soaked cotton ball on fire, and with a set of tongs, circulated it inside a glass bowl, which resembles a bell or flower pot, and slapped it on my back. Seconds later, my skin rose into the cup about an inch high.

As for how it worked for me, in the days after the cupping, coupled with an acupuncture session by Schlank, some chronic pain in my back and shoulder seemed to have lessened. With any health treatment, though, it's hard to know how much the placebo effect plays a role.

I didn't feel any side effects from the cupping. I'd even forgotten I had it done until someone at the pool one day asked me what the circular bruises were on my back.

DYER — It's easy to feel intimidated and judged at the gym, amid the bodybuilders and toned bodies.

She hoped to create a space where women "of all shapes and sizes" would feel comfortable exercising, she said.

She has done that. And she even made a spot where I felt relaxed doing a boot camp-style workout in a room full of females.

"You can feel good about yourself, regardless of your fitness level, regardless of your size, regardless of your weight. You'll fit at She Fit."

Even though I'm not the target demographic for She Fit, I am The Times' fitness-experimenter-in-chief, so Nelson invited me over to try the gym's Ultimate Workout.

I showed up there on a recent morning to find a balance ball, kettlebell and weights already set up for me. There was no turning back.

The roomy, well-lit space was filled with stationary bikes, trampolines and punching bags. Mirrors and motivational sayings adorned the walls. Velvet chairs with pink and purple pillows provided a comfy spot to chill.

Olen led us in rotating sets of squat jumps, bicep curls, burpees, lunges, jumping jacks, plank rows, mountain climbers, dips and crunches. Nelson and her receptionist watched me from a window in the front office. She swears it was there when she rented the building, but I'm not sure.

Her voyeurism came in handy when she saw me struggling with the 50-pound kettlebell. She walked over and swapped it for a 25-pounder.

Sweat gushed out of me like a dam. I took off my glasses so they didn't fall off, got a handful of paper towels, and went back to work: Crunches, leg and hip drops, planks.

I struggled to finish the session. But Olen didn't scold me if I had to stop a set early or modify the exercise. My hosts cheered me on.

Forty-five minutes after we started, it was over. I've done more extreme workouts in the Region, had more drill-instructor-like instructors. And I guess that's the point.

She Fit is for everyone, even out-of-shape newspaper reporters (though you do have to be female to join).

Nelson had for years been dreaming of opening a fitness club, ever since she managed some local gyms in the late '90s and early 2000s. "I was just waiting for the right opportunity," she said.

She passed by the former karate studio on her way to work to Illinois and concluded it would be a perfect location for her vision.

She Fit offers a variety of classes for whatever the client is looking to improve, from ABC (arms, butt and chest) to AAA (arms, abs and ass) to BLT (butt, legs and thighs). The gym has kickboxing, Zumba, pilates, spin classes, trampoline aerobics.

She said she set up the classes so people of any age, size or fitness level could complete them. Her clients range in age from 14 to 76 ("Our 70-year-olds are fiery and feisty," she said.) You could be getting back into exercise after a years-long break, or after having a baby — all are welcome, she said.

The gym is even physically designed for women, from the anti-fatigue flooring to prevent knee tears to the cushiony bike seats.

HIGHLAND — The other day I found myself in a second-story condo here, biting down on a straw with my back teeth, forcing myself to laugh.

After it was over, though, I had a feeling of relief, like I'd just taken a deep breath or let out a big sigh.

Kathy O'Brien was showing me the types of exercises she does with people in her role as a certified laughologist. That's right: She is certified to teach laughter.

If you met her, it wouldn't surprise you to find out she does this. She named her pink bunny doll Mrs. Fluffington. She has a million dollar bill posted above her fireplace. She uses the word "jeepers."

Laughing relieves pain, stimulates your organs from the increased intake of rich oxygen, and fires and relieves your stress response, according to a Mayo Clinic review of the studies on laughter.

"It helps to lower your blood pressure, improves the immune system and gosh darnit, it just makes you feel good," O'Brien said.

One study even found that laughter activates the brain's opioid receptors, releasing endorphins. It's like taking narcotics. Except without the side effects.

As a laughologist, O'Brien shows people how to laugh even when nothing's funny. Thus the straw exercise.

The 70-year-old gives her talks at churches, support groups, service organizations. She speaks at corporate outings; businesses, she said, lose a lot of money and productivity due to stress-related illnesses. She hopes to present more at health care settings: dialysis and chemotherapy clinics, Alzheimer's units.

"I talk about good-hearted living because that's what it's all about," she said. "If you start each day with mindfulness and more pleasant thoughts in your brain, the longer they'll be there."

I spend my days talking to people about their terminal illnesses or deceased loved ones. My newspaper regularly reports on children drowning, on senseless murders. I can see a TV playing CNN out of the corner of my eye.

I find the funniest, raunchiest, most satirical shows I can find (Howard Stern and "The All Out Show" on SiriusXM are my go-tos). I snort and whoop alone in my car. Sometimes I wonder what people think when I'm next to them at a stoplight, crying from laughter.

I don't care. It's my medicine, to prepare for and help me unwind from eight hours writing about dead babies and interviewing people who are crying — from sadness.

I also have a dark sense of humor, a trait I share with a lot of my co-workers, and many people whose work days are filled with tragedy: firefighters, paramedics, emergency room staffers; O'Brien was a registered nurse. It's a coping mechanism.

After meeting a laughologist one day about a decade ago, O'Brien was intrigued. She did research and found out it was a real thing. She got certified through the World Laughter Tour; the group, whose aim is to spread laughter therapy, was founded by an Ohio psychologist who encountered laughter clubs while traveling in India.

"I don't think I'd like to be a clown or stand-up comedian," she said, wearing a colorful, flower necklace. She had a "Be Happy" drawing on her wall, a picture book of smiles, a "Live, Laugh, Love" snow globe. "With this, you don't have to say any punchlines or tell any stories. You just have to laugh for the heck of it."

HIGHLAND — I've always been curious about acupuncture: how it works, how it feels, why people do it.

That's how I found myself late last month laying on a massage table, needles sticking out of my extremities, my chest, my stomach.

When I arrived at Highland Acupuncture earlier that day, acupuncturist Tim Schlank, asked me what I wanted to work on. I told him I had a bum shoulder.

He took my pulse. He told me some other problems I had: kidney inflammation, a "hot" stomach, "deep," weak lungs. He said these indicated I had some neck issues, acid reflux, allergies. He was right. How he could tell this from feeling from pulse I still don't know.

He said the problems were with my qi or chi (pronounced: chee), essentially my energy flow, which he says affects the functionality of my organs. In medical terminology, he calls qi "the oxygen and nutrition that blood carries throughout the body and makes it healthy."

While acupuncture may be new to me, it's very old. Starting in China thousands of years ago, it's been used, its practitioners say, to cure a variety of ailments.

"It helps the body heal itself," said Jason Wilson, an acupuncturist with Alternative Healing Works in Dyer. 

Science has borne some of this out. The National Institutes of Health have analyzed a number of studies, finding that acupuncture may help reduce chronic pain — for instance, in the lower back, neck and knee — and ease tension and migraine headaches.

The institutes, however, say the mechanisms on the brain and body and just beginning to be understood, noting that "expectation and belief" may play just as much of a role as the needling.

While many doctors still deride acupuncture as pseudoscience, others embrace it. Academic medical centers such as Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Hospital offer acupuncture, as do, locally, Franciscan Alliance and Porter Health Care System. Some state Medicaid programs (Indiana is not one) are even covering acupuncture as a way to curtail the opioid epidemic.

There are also so-called medical acupuncturists: medical doctors who mesh Western and Eastern medicine.

For instance, Dr. Kalpana Doshi, a medical acupuncturist in Munster, mixes needling with electrical stimulation. She said the most common ailments she treats are chronic pain, as well as stress, anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms and menopausal symptoms.

She explained the physiology behind acupuncture. She said the needles, applied to so-called pressure points, stimulate the brain and spinal cord to release endorphins, the "feel good" hormone that acts as a natural painkiller. She said the needle pricks increase blood flow to those areas, promoting healing and muscle relaxation.

After my examination, it was on to the table. I lay down, and Schlank got to poking. He placed the needles at various pressure points, around my torso and extremities, that corresponded to other areas of my body.

"This is like getting the kinks out of garden hoses that are blocking water to a garden," Schlank said, adding that acupuncture is meant to correct a "pattern of disharmony."

He said the needles might sting briefly but that the pain shouldn't last. I jumped a few of the times he jabbed me with needles; it hurt a little more than I expected (though I'm not sure what I expected given that I was going to be stabbed with sharp objects).

After about 45 minutes, Schlank re-entered the room and removed the needles. He tested out my shoulder pain.

It seemed to have improved, I thought. How much of that was a placebo effect, I don't know, but it felt a little better in the days to come.

Like any health regimen, it likely would take multiple treatments to determine if it actually worked (Schlank says it generally requires five to eight treatments, at about $60 a pop). If nothing else, though, it has little in the way of side effects.

Tasha Mayfield, of Dolton, had such severe migraines that she considered going on opioid painkillers. She desperately didn't want to do that, so she opted for acupuncture.

Starting in February, she went to Schlank in Highland three times a week for the first couple months, then monthly.

"I haven't a migraine or headache in about 2 1/2 months," said Mayfield, who is 44 and works in human resources.

Patti Maya, of Munster, first tried it after visiting Austin, Texas, where her daughter's roommate was going to school for it. After not getting relief from migraine headaches, she made an appointment with Schlank.

At her intake, he learned about her gastrointestinal issues. As Chinese medicine isn't just about inserting needles into the skin, he gave her some Chinese herbs and recommended a plant-based diet. She, in turn, gave up red meat, and said her stomach symptoms went away.

As for the acupuncture, Maya says her migraines disappeared after about a month of the treatments. She stopped taking the medication she was on for the headaches.

"This affected my life, and I've got my life back," said Maya, 71, a retired nurse. "I can keep up with my grandkids now."

She just wonders why Medicare doesn't cover acupuncture, when it was more than willing to pay for a expensive pharmaceutical that didn't work.

One insurance that does cover acupuncture — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and Pipefitters are a couple others — is the Veterans Affairs health plan.

William Holiday, of Lansing, was referred to an acupuncturist by his VA doctor after steroid and cortisone injections, opioids and a spinal cord stimulator didn't relieve his back pain.

"I didn't think it was going to work. I didn't believe it," said Holliday, 73, a retired elevator mechanic. "I changed my mind."

For one, I never turn down a fitness challenge. But, also, I was being asked by one of The Times' Lose 18 in '18 weight-loss contestants.

I write about these people every month as they pursue healthy lifestyles. It's only fair that I experience the grueling workouts they do to try to get there.

That's how I ended up at Full Spectrum Fitness here Tuesday, bodybuilding with Melanie Pociask, a 36-year-old Crown Point school teacher and one of the participants in our weight-loss contest.

I lasted about halfway through her two-hour weightlifting session. At some of the weight machines, I couldn't lift as much as her.

Pociask lifts at the gym six nights a week and does cardio — mostly spin class — every morning. She is one of the most active contestants in Lose 18 in '18 — and a role model for anyone trying to get into shape. She and her fellow weight-losers have dropped a total of 178 pounds in the past eight months, with nearly a third of the participants meeting the initial goal of 18 pounds.

She has the right idea. Jesse McCabe, a personal trainer at Franciscan Health Fitness Centers in Schererville, said lifting weights is a good way to lose weight. He said adding muscle speeds up your metabolism, causing your body to burn calories even when it's stagnant, decreasing body fat in the process.

"The more muscle mass you have the more calories you're going to burn at a resting heart rate," said John Brant, owner of Full Spectrum Fitness.

Pociask began her mission of getting healthy in December 2016 because she didn't want it to be a New Year's resolution, which fail more often than not. She has since lost almost 80 pounds.

She is even inspiring others. One of her co-workers, Kara Barno, lifts weights with her four days out of the week.

"You're in beast mode," Barno told Pociask, who was doing 100-pound reps on the shoulder press, on Tuesday night.

I kept up with Pociask at first but lagged the longer we went on. It takes endurance to do what she does.

When she started two years ago, however, she couldn't even lift the bar on the shoulder press. Now she's doing 130 pounds.

Brant said he's witnessed an exponential increase in her strength and decrease in her body fat. "That's because of her diligence," he said.

HAMMOND — A local university has brought California to Northwest Indiana. All that's missing is the ocean.

Earlier this month at its fitness center here, Purdue University Northwest installed a replica of Muscle Beach, the famous outdoor weightlifting spot on Venice Beach.

From 3 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, gym members can work out on an assortment of fitness equipment, right alongside the elements.

As The Times' fitness-experimenter-in-chief, I tried out the new setup Tuesday. Exercise specialist Nate Lewis put me through a circuit of tire flips, reverse crunches, battle ropes and a chest press machine.

On a beautifully still 80-degree day, the sun just the right amount of toasty, I went from station to station, increasingly drenched with sweat as the workout wore on.

That was the idea behind the new fitness space. Matt Dudzik, intramurals director at Purdue Northwest in Hammond, wanted to attract members who don't like working out inside.

It started in the 1930s at a beach in Santa Monica, California, where gymnasts would gather and perform their exercises. Eventually, people showed up to watch. It was the Great Depression, and Americans were starved for entertainment. This was free.

The spot in Santa Monica eventually closed. In nearby Venice Beach, a beachfront neighborhood in Los Angeles with an iconic boardwalk, bodybuilders would get together to lift weights outside. That area was dubbed the new Muscle Beach, in 1987.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack "the Godfather of Fitness" LaLanne, and Gold's Gym founder Joe Gold all worked out there. It was originally called "The Pen." Purdue Northwest, home of the Pride, has named its spot "The Lion's Cage."

Muscle Beach has bleachers where spectators can watch the weightlifters — ripped men and women doing "show-off workouts," as Lewis put it. Purdue Northwest plans to install bleachers at its Muscle Beach for its upcoming strongman, bench and deadlift competitions.

"People like to watch people work out, lift weights," Dudzik said. "When people cheer them on, it gives them that extra push."

The "Lion's Cage" also is part of a trend of exercise equipment being installed outdoors in the Region. Parks in Highland, East Chicago, Valparaiso and LaPorte all have workout stations.

Mike Gamaleri, a senior and fitness center employee at Purdue Northwest, pumped iron alongside me Tuesday. He likes the space the outdoors allows, for tire-flipping and the like. He digs the fresh air, the sun. He said it's a better workout.

"Especially if it's a hot summer day, you fatigue a little quicker, you sweat more, you get more of out of it rather than being in the air-conditioning," he said.

There also are fewer distractions, he said: no TVs playing cable news, no iPhone notification sounds diverting your attention.

After flipping a gigantic tire, Katie Wheeler, a graduate of Purdue Northwest's fitness program, said exercising outdoors is a little more difficult because of the unevenness of the ground, a challenge she welcomes.

"I enjoy it because the sun's out, you get a nice breeze and I love nature," she said. "You get the best of both worlds."

"I get my tan from being out here," Purdue Northwest senior Roman Torrano said. His tank top read, "Sun's out, guns out." "A few more things, it would be perfect, like a bench press."

The fitness center plans to add more equipment outdoors, after it replaces its indoor equipment in the near future.

"That's your last one," Lewis said Tuesday afternoon, after I did my 40th-odd tire flip of the day. "Ever in my life," I responded.

I finished my final of three sets with 10 reverse crunches, 20 seconds on the battle ropes and 12 chest presses. I was wet with sweat. I was spent.

But I'll admit: The place had me feeling more studly than I actually am. The refreshing air, the tranquil breeze, the nourishment from the sun's rays, gave me a boost. All I needed was adoring crowds.

HAMMOND — I was walking past the Purdue Northwest gym one day when I saw people running around a basketball court, inside giant plastic bubbles.

That's where I found myself earlier this month, wondering what I had got myself into. I had just watched the first match of bubble soccer that day, where participants seemed to be more focused on slamming one another to the ground than scoring goals.

A few moments later — BOOM! — I was knocked to the floor, by an unknown assailant, bouncing every which way, my glasses falling off my face.

Earlier that evening, Matt Dudzik, who directs intramurals at the Hammond campus, had assured us that bubble soccer wouldn't hurt.

While the bubble protects your head and torso, your legs are exposed. So when I got knocked to the ground I skinned my knee. Luckily, I'm a big boy. Next time, though, I'll be sure to wear pants rather than shorts.

The one rule of bubble soccer, according to Dudzik: If someone is down, let them get back up. Sometimes people get stuck upside down, the top of their ball to the ground, like a turtle on its back.

It was hard to see the ball through the layers of inflated plastic, so I mostly focused on watching out for other players.

BAM! I was blasted to the ground again, unable to control my fall, bouncing like a basketball. Again, I had no idea who did it.

The third time I was whacked, I made sure to identify my attacker. We'll call him "Guy in White T-shirt." I stalked him for the remainder of the match and, when the time was right, and he wasn't looking — I blasted him to the ground. My animal instincts kicked in. It felt good.

For my second game, my fellow players seemed a little more gentle. There were more girls this time around. So I felt I could focus more on scoring goals.

I still had to watch my front and back and sides (not easy to do when you're entombed in a plastic orb). I still tackled and got tackled. But I started seeing the ball better, running with abandon, and at least attempting to get the ball past the goalie.

He was right. I broke a sweat. I was winded. Bubble soccer, particularly since you're confined in a plastic suit, definitely burns calories.

On the way out of the gym, I saw a broken pair of glasses. If you're bespectacled, I'd recommend prescription sports googles or contacts for bubble soccer. I left my specs off for the second game.

Despite the sometimes violent intensity of the sport, it is hilarious to watch. Seeing someone get unsuspectedly flipped upside down, without getting hurt, does elicit laughter.

During the first match, one player in particular seemed intent on taking out as many people as possible. "That guy failed my science class four times," one of my fellow spectators commented.

It's another thing to play. It's difficult to see, so it's hard to tell your teammates from your opponents. I'm pretty sure people were accidentally laying out members of their own squads.

Bubble soccer was popularized in 2011 by a pair of Norwegians who host a comedy sports TV show. The game exploded in 2014 when a video of people playing it in Italy went viral. There is now a National Association of Bubble Soccer, and there are leagues around the country, including in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

If you're interested in trying bubble soccer, the bubble suits are available for rent from various companies in the Chicagoland area and Indiana. Rugged Adventures in Winamac offers bubble soccer. Bubble soccer at Purdue Northwest is open to students and employees.

The sport is entertaining and a good workout, but if I did it again I might avoid playing with a bunch of testosterone-fueled undergrads.

I had gone into my latest assignment as The Times' health-and-fitness guinea pig thinking it would be a nice, easy workout. It wasn't.

I was drenched in sweat and already feel the soreness coming on after a bruising, hour-and-a-half of boxing, jumping jacks and flipping tires, among other assorted exercises.

Earlier this week, I tried out Rock Steady Boxing, an exercise program for people with Parkinson's disease, at Franciscan Health Fitness Centers in Schererville. Research has found that exercise can slow the progress of the neurodegenerative disorder. Class instructor Debbie Scanlon invited me to show me that it's a serious, intense workout.

My two classmates and I started out with a getting-to-you-know exercise. Scanlon asked, "What do you complain about more than anything else?" (I should have said the workouts I volunteer to do as The Times' fitness-experimenter-in-chief.) The point of this was to warm up the vocal cords.

I came out swinging hard and fast, as we were instructed to do, for one minute. By the time we had to plank, for another minute, I was worn out.

Scanlon did not go easy on me or my classmates. She seemed sweet when I talked to her on the phone. Suddenly she turned into the drill instructor from "Full Metal Jacket."

But they kept up with Scanlon's demands. I attempted to as well, maybe slacking off a bit when she wasn't looking.

Both guys were in great shape. Ken Nitz, of Schererville, started Rock Steady Boxing in January. "This was my wife's idea of a Christmas present," he said.

The 71-year-old has noticed his strength, appetite and energy level get better. He has lost weight. He said his doctor declared his Parkinson's has improved from stage 2 to stage 1.

"It retrains areas of the brain that aren't working so well," said Ashley Bohlen, another class instructor.

For nearly an hour, we did 15 rounds of boxing mixed with jumping jacks, rope-jumping, pushups, squats, wall-sitting and other gloriously fun activities.

We went from station to station, panting and sweating and complaining, flipping tires and swinging heavy ropes and pushing weight sleds. Then, it was over. Phew.

"When I went to visit my sister in Ohio a month ago, she told me I didn't shake as much," the 69-year-old said. "If anything, it's a good workout."

I could see how Rock Steady Boxing could help. It focuses on big movements (Parkinson's is characterized by small motions and bent postures). It emphasizes balance, another casualty of the disease. It is intense.

"It's not going to cure Parkinson's, but our hope is to slow the progression," Scanlon said. "And make it fun."

It was "fun" — if you want to call it that. My favorite part was when it ended. I'm sore as I write this, though I wouldn't mind doing it again.

But the real purpose of Rock Steady Boxing is not to torture me, it's to help people with Parkinson's. And if my classmates' testimony and the research are correct, it's working.

Jean Stevens' granddaughter called on a Friday and asked what she was doing the following Monday. Nothing, Stevens said. The granddaughter sai…

20mm Thick Glass

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

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