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Evolution of Group Exercise: Where Have We Been, and Where Are We Headed?

Jan 20, 2012

Written by Jan Schroeder, Ph.D.

Long gone are the days of leotards, leg warmers and record players. Today’s group exercise classes are a far cry from the original concept of aerobics that began 40 years ago.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper developed the term “aerobics” to describe a system of exercises that he formulated to help prevent coronary artery disease. His scientific programs included walking, running, cycling and swimming. He introduced his concept to the general public in his 1968 best-selling book Aerobics. By the 1970s, aerobics had become synonymous with cardiorespiratory exercise that combined traditional calisthenics with popular dance styles. This new form of exercise was generally credited to Jacki Sorensen, a former dancer, and Judy Sheppard Missett, founder of Jazzercise.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, aerobics consisted mostly of high-impact movements (jumping, running and leaping), which became a cause of concern due to an increase in overuse injuries. By the mid-to-late 1980s, low-impact aerobics gained popularity because of the less-intense movements used in the classes. In 1989, another new form of aerobics came onto the scene: step aerobics. Gin Miller developed step aerobics following a knee injury and successfully brought it into the mainstream. Since the early 1990s, the term “aerobics” has been steadily replaced by the term “group exercise,” due to an influx of innovative formats that do not include aerobic conditioning.

The number of group exercise formats currently offered is staggering. In the 2008 IDEA Programs and Equipment study, more than 30 different types of group exercise formats were surveyed to determine their popularity in the fitness industry. Hi/lo and step aerobics have managed to retain their popularity despite the increase in newer formats, such as Pilates and core-conditioning classes. Strength-training classes, dance and stability ball-based programs are a few of the formats that have experienced increases in popularity during the past 10 years. Activities that have traditionally been held outdoors, such as boot camps and cycling, have moved indoors with great success.

Group exercise has evolved from high-impact aerobics classes geared toward women to a wide range of activities for people with different skills and interests. Classes no longer revolve solely around dance moves to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, but now incorporate every aspect of fitness, such as strength, flexibility, balance and sport moves through a variety of formats. The classes are no longer directed to women, but are open to both genders and all ages from the child to the senior. Group exercise has changed considerably over the past 40 years and will continue to grow to meet the ever-changing needs of the consumer.

Popularity of Group Classes
Format     % of facilities that offer format
Abdominals    74
Strength training   74
Core-conditioning classes  73
Circuit classes   69
Pilates    68
Stability ball-based programs  61
Yoga     61
Aerobics    49
Boot camp classes indoors  47
Combination/hybrid classes  47
Cycling-based classes (indoor)  46
Step aerobics    46
Dance (e.g., funk, hip-hop) 40
Boxing-based/kickboxing  39
Water fitness    38
Tai chi    24
Martial arts-based aerobics  21

Source: Schroeder, J.M. and Friesen, K. (2008). “2008 IDEA fitness programs & equipment survey: Overview” IDEA Fitness Journal, July-August 2008. 22-28.

View the full winter 2008 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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