Fitness classes at local health clubs have come a long way from Step and Body Pump. Now you can choose from African Dance, Capoeira, Strip Tease, Karaoke Spin and “Hooping” (yes, as in “hula”). Sure, variety is the spice of life, and it’s important to mix up your exercise routine to maximize results. But with so many options to choose from, how do you know whether a given class is helping you meet your fitness goals? If you swap a session on the treadmill for a class in swordplay, is it an even trade? Here’s how to evaluate your gym’s more offbeat offerings:
1) Who is teaching the class and what’s the primary focus?
Dancers can deliver a butt-kicking workout, but dance-flavored classes like ballet and belly dancing sometimes emphasize art instead of exercise. If your teacher is a Fosse wannabe, you might sacrifice a good workout for a spot in a pretend production of Chicago. Are there frequent pauses in the class to go over steps and combos? Does the instructor stop people to review technique instead of focusing on safety or maximizing intensity? Does the choreography confuse you to the point where you can’t keep up with the class? If so, you’ve left the gym for a class in the performing arts. Unless you’re looking for a fun, low-intensity activity to augment your workouts, take a bow and leave.
2) Are you working in your training zone long enough?
Assuming you’re not a complete newcomer to the fitness scene, a decent aerobics workout requires you to work between 65 and 90 percent of your maximum heart rate for at least 20 minutes (toward the less intense end of the scale if you’re a beginner, harder and longer if you’re more conditioned). That means that if your class is 45 minutes and includes a warm-up, cooldown, abs portion and stretch, you’d darn well better be moving and grooving during the rest of it.
To track the intensity of your workout, you can either wear a heart-rate monitor or assess your rate of perceived exertion. On a scale of 1 to 10 (where one is sitting on the couch and 10 is running away from a burning building), how hard are you working? Your answer should be between 6 and 9, possibly pushing to 10 for a few seconds, for the bulk of the class. Another way to make sure you’re working hard is to focus on your breathing. If you feel like you could have a conversation with the person next to you, you’re not working hard enough.
3) Are you getting a balanced workout?
No single class can meet all of your fitness needs, but the best ones combine elements of strength training, flexibility and cardio. Boxing is one example of a class that combines footwork drills, rope jumping and plenty of upper-body work on the heavy bag with core-intensive defensive moves, such as circling from the waist to avoid a hook. If you’re not working hard enough, the instructor may even throw in a few push-ups for punitive measure.