OFF THE COUCH Planning to shape up? Well, jump to it!

Are you tired of paying high prices for fitness equipment? Do you use your Nordic Track as a valet? Has your Health Rider become an extra seat for watching television in the guest room? Is the collection of ab machines and Thigh Masters now playground equipment for your cat?

How about if someone told you that you could increase your cardiovascular rate, drop pounds and improve your rhythm in less than 20 minutes a day, in the convenience of your own home, all for less than $5? Would you dice and slice him with a Ronco peeler and throw him in a dehydrator until he emerged as tender beef jerky?

The proliferation of costly exercise devices and exercise clubs has conditioned people to neglect simplicity, and nothing could be more simple than the jump rope. Many also associate jumping rope with girlish playground activity at the one end and fearsome boxing regimens at the other. Its versatility, however, can extend into sophisticated choreography; witness double Dutch competitions or, in Cirque du Soleil’s “Quidam, ” the elegant ropes routine of the Diabolos act.

Children today don’t get much exercise. The nonprofit foundation International Life Sciences released a study in 1997 saying that fewer than one in four youngsters in grades four to 12 engaged in a minimum of 10 minutes of vigorous physical activity daily. This might partly explain the U.S. surgeon general’s estimates of about 5.8 million overweight teens.

At the beginning of this decade, the American Heart Association tried to reintroduce the portable sport into the American consciousness and educational curriculum. It continues to employ the activity as an annual fund-raiser, Jump Rope for Heart, in which schools such as Danville’s St. Isidore and Oakley’s Laurel Elementary have participated.

Better than tennis

Jumping rope at 60 to 80 skips a minute burns 143 calories in 15 minutes and 572 in 60, quite comparable to cross-country skiing and, according to “Fitness for Dummies, ” better than basketball, swimming or tennis, a rowing or ski machine.

The elementary jump rope does require some fitting and decision-making. Pull the handles while stepping on the middle of the rope; the ends should reach your armpits. A shorter rope doesn’t allow crossing and a longer rope promotes inefficient drag (unless you want slower turns). Speedsters favor leather for light, quick flexibility, but woven cotton or synthetic fibers don’t sting during accidental slaps. Heavy ropes strengthen upper body. Plastic or beaded ropes work for those who need a slower turn so they can practice complicated maneuvers by themselves or with multiple partners. Beaded ropes also last longer and the slap when they hit the ground creates an audible rhythm to track movements.

Recommendations are mixed regarding ball-bearing handles, which turn the rope more easily but are shunned by some professional competitors. Just make sure the rope at least turns within the handle and does not twist. Purchases can be as low as $4.96. You may want to check out Klutz Inc.’s “Chinese Jump Rope” activity book by Anne Akers Johnson ($10.95).

Here are some exercises to get you off your feet. Pair this exercise with a stunning outdoor view, invigorating music, books on tape or, if you have the room, an undemanding television show. (Is there any other kind?) To minimize impact, stick to ones where your feet barely leave the floor and your knees are just slightly bent.

Getting started

  • Basic jump: Jumping on the balls of both feet for each turn of the rope. Feet, ankles and knees should be together.
  • Bell jump: With feet together, alternate jumping forward and back over a space of about 6-8 inches. The motion describes a bell shape.
  • Side straddle jump: Alternate spreading the feet a little more than shoulder-width’s apart and back again.
  • Double under: Using your wrists to whip the rope around, jump rope three times and then spin the rope under your feet twice during one jump.
  • Link jumping: Partners stand side by side, each holding the other’s closest handle. Jump rope in unison. As skill and foolhardiness increases, add more partners.
  • Umbrella: This exercise requires one extra long, one long and one regular rope and five partners. The anchor people face each other and swing the extra long rope. The next two partners jump in, also facing the center, and begin to swing their own long rope. The last person jumps into the two turning ropes and begins turning his or her rope, therefore skipping all three ropes. The two shorter ropes must be turned slowly to match the rhythm of the longest rope.

Vera HC Chan writes Off the Couch every other week. Send suggestions to her at the Contra Costa Times, P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, 94596, or by fax to 943-8362.