Next time you invoke the busy schedule/commute/travelling defence as an excuse for why you don't get to work out, spare a thought for Elaine Courtney and her niece Kourtney Pavlov.
The two circus performers – members of the much-loved Circus Vegas – can perform up to three shows a day. They also move from town to town (and country to country) on a regular basis. Yet behind the dazzling shows, eye-popping stunts and glitzy costumes, plenty of elbow grease happens behind the scenes to ensure that both performers are at peak fitness.
Despite her hectic schedule, 16-year-old Kourtney manages to get two hours of training in every day to perfect her aerial ball and contortionist acts. "I have to practise for two hours a day, even if we don't have a show," she explains. "You can never really have a day off from the stretching because of the contortionist act. I'd love to sit in bed all day, but you just can't. I'm lucky that my boyfriend John (Laci-Fossett) is in the show – he does an aerial straps routine – so we do a lot of pull-ups, sit-ups and running together. Keeping my strength up is important, as it has saved me from injury quite a lot."
Kourtney may seemingly fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but the nature of stage work means that mishaps can and do occasionally occur; all the more reason to maintain her strength and flexibility. "The ball is essentially made of glass, and sometimes it can get slippery," she says. "I fell four metres once but, thank God, I was perfectly okay."
Both Kourtney and Elaine have survived the cut and thrust of circus life thanks to a base level of fitness that both of them have had since childhood. They note that circus life is essentially in their blood: Kourtney began to join in at training sessions with her family as a young teenager ("it's not that hard to pick up a few things when everyone is trying something out"). Meanwhile, Elaine has been performing aerial acrobatics since she was six years old.
"When I was very young, my aunt and mum were perfecting an aerial cradle act during rehearsals, and next thing I was climbing up the ladder," she recalls. "My mother said, 'let her climb up, and she'll eventually get frightened and climb down' . . . but I didn't."
Now 46, Elaine still boasts an impressive six-pack from her regular aerial acrobatics and trapeze performances. "You can't sit around for too long," she smiles. "You have to get up and do something. My only problem is that when I work out I lose too much weight and get too skinny."
She may have the body of a woman half her age, and Elaine says that a lifetime of death-defying aerial feats mean that she has the fitness level of a much younger person, too.
"Honestly, it's no harder to perform these days than when I was 26," she says. "The only difference is that I have to warm up beforehand and cool down afterwards by doing the splits, or else I'll get too stiff. If you look after your body, it'll really stand by you."
And, when Elaine had her daughter Katrina 10 years ago, she found this to be entirely true. Although she stopped performing in the circus show when she was three months pregnant, Elaine still had her eight-pack until she was four months pregnant. "I'd had a Caesarean section, and I was told by my doctor not to do anything strenuous for six weeks after the birth, or else I would put my progress back."
That said, the path back to the bright lights of circus performance didn't quite run as smoothly as she thought it might: "Six weeks and one day after I had the baby, I put up my ropes and I couldn't lift myself an inch off the ground," says Elaine. "It was a total shock, but I practised really hard, and three weeks later I was back working with my eight-pack intact. I remember at the time some girls in the show were like, 'you'll never get back into your bikini costumes now', but my attitude was, 'well, why wouldn't I?'"
Nowadays, nightly strenuous and high-energy performances mean that Elaine can eat whatever she wants, and confesses to enjoying up to three bars of chocolate a day.
"I think your body gets used to working it (the calories) off," she explains. "While we travel, I have an American fifth wheel wagon (to live in), and it has all the usual conveniences in it, so I cook full, healthy dinners all the time."
Aerial classes are slowly but surely cropping up in Ireland, designed to offer a core-heavy, strengthening and toning workout to everybody. Among the companies bringing fitness workouts to new and dizzying heights include Dublin's Aerial Cirque (www.aerialcirque.org), Paperdolls in Dublin (www.paperdollsperformance.com) and the Circus Factory in Cork (www.facebook.com/circusfactory.com).
Aerial workouts are an option for people of all ages and fitness levels, and Elaine stresses that it's never too late to start getting in the air. "I see people my age complaining that she can't lift this and that," she says. "I know that for certain people, working out is boring, but I've found that if there's one part of your body that you think needs work, that's the part that they need to address. People often steam in and do too much or work out their whole bodies. To anyone my age, I would advise them to find something that doesn't bother you too much. As we get older, we really can't be bothered with exercise, but that's not good, either. The trick is to do a little of what you love, often."
Even now, both Elaine and Kourtney still admit that their performances are as thrilling for them as for their young audiences.
"I adore that feeling of a thousand people watching, and all eyes are on your when you perform," says Kourtney. "I'm guessing that singers get that same kind of feeling when they go on stage and sing. It's even better when you get to live with your family and travel while doing it. It's a lot of practice and hard work, but ultimately it's what I feel I was born to do."