Exercising in a Class

For people who need discipline, organization and motivation in their fitness training, a timed workout at a sports centre can be an effective way to keep fit, enhance current health and wellbeing and prevent future health problems. Sports centres usually offer a wide range of activities, so most people should be able to find one or more classes that meet their individual needs.

When choosing an exercise class, consider the various classes available and select activities that are appropriate for your needs and level of fitness.

CHOOSING EXERCISE CLASSES

The mix of aerobic, muscular and flexibility exercise varies between classes, so it is important to find out what is included. Sessions described as ‘aerobic’ often provide an all-round workout including warm-up and cool-down elements and some exercises for muscular strength, as well as the central aerobic session.

Checking the level of a class is also important- a class that is too easy can quickly become boring, and a class that is too difficult can be dangerous and may leave you feeling inadequate and frustrated. The quality of classes can vary greatly and much depends on the instructor’s personality and ability to motivate. The instructor should ask newcomers to identify themselves at the beginning of each session and should allow time for beginners to learn the routines, offering individual attention where necessary.

Cross training (combining activities in a training programme) reduces the risk of suffering from over-use injuries, so consider attending more than one type of workout.

SUITABLE ACTIVITIES

The activities described here are just some of the most popular types of workout; there are many variations. An important consideration should be whether to concentrate on muscular fitness or aerobic fitness, but many classes include elements of both.

Circuit training

Widely considered to be the most effective form of all-round fitness training, circuit training consists of aerobic work interspersed with muscular strength and endurance work. Exercises are typically carried out at a series of ‘stations’ for short periods of time, with rests or gentle activity between. A typical circuit might include running on the spot, press-ups, skipping, squats, stepping and curl-ups. Equipment such as weights, benches or even exercise bicycles may be included at some of the stations. Classes include a warm-up, preparatory stretches, the circuit, a cool-down and flexibility work. A typical class lasts 45-60 minutes.

Age group: teens to old age.

Special equipment: cross-trainers and sports clothing.

Benefits: aerobic fitness; fat-burning; all-over muscular strength and endurance; body sculpting; builds bone; improves coordination; improves flexibility.

Risks: training injuries.

Recommended frequency: two to three times a week, depending on the level of class.

Training advice: it is important to rest when feeling tired; work at your own pace rather than trying to keep up with the class. Controversial exercises, such as straddle jumps or squat jumps off a bench, should be avoided. A good trainer should not object if asked to suggest an alternative exercise.

Making progress: a well designed class enables each person to have a good workout, whatever their level of fitness. A more advanced class can offer new challenges.

Aerobics and aquaerobics

Aerobics classes are workouts to lively music. The classes consist of choreographed movements, sometimes influenced by particular dance styles, and are designed to provide a good cardiovascular workout sandwiched between a warm-up and cool-down; they may also include endurance floor exercises and flexibility work. Aerobics classes are held at all levels of ability, from beginners to advanced. A typical class lasts 45-60 minutes; longer classes are for advanced fitness training.

Aerobics classes may be high-impact (with a lot of jumping) or low-impact (with one foot always kept on the ground).

Age group: teens to old age. In general, the impact should be reduced as you age, so that the joints are not stressed.

Special equipment: cross-trainers or aerobic trainers; loose or stretch sports clothing, preferably in natural, ‘breathable’ fibres (sec p.54).

Benefits: aerobic fitness; fat burning; leg strength; limited upper body benefits, depending on floor exercises; builds bone; improves coordination; some improvements to flexibility, depending on stretches.

Risks: foot, ankle, calf, shin, knee, hip and back problems from repeated impact and uncontrolled fast movements.

Recommended frequency: up to three times a week, allowing a rest day between sessions.

Training advice: it is important to strive for the maximum range of movement and retain good posture throughout a class. These aspects can be neglected when working hard. If you feel tired, slow down or rest. To minimize the impact on the joints, look for a proper training room with sprung floors, and make sure the whole foot (not just the ball of the foot) is planted firmly when landing after a jump.

Making progress: progress by working harder to push the heart rate into the upper end of the target training zone; then move up to an advanced class with more challenging choreography.

A variation on aerobics is aquaerobics – an aerobic workout carried out in a swimming pool. Aquaerobics is popular with overweight and elderly people as it does not stress joints; it is also suitable during pregnancy.

Step aerobics

Another popular form of aerobic workout, step classes involve stepping up and down on a box to music. Classes include a warm-up, preparatory stretches, a variable length of time stepping to bring the heart into the target training zone, some muscular strength and endurance exercises using the box, flexibility work and a cool-down. Stepping is a low-impact activity, but step classes may include some jumping for a high-impact workout. A variation on the step is the ‘powerboard’ – a bouncy low step made of impact-absorbing material that reduces the stress on the joints.

Age group: teens to old age. In general, the impact should be reduced with age, so that the joints are not stressed.

Special equipment: cross-trainers or aerobic trainers; comfortable sports clothing.

Benefits: aerobic fitness; fat burning; leg strength; limited upper body benefits, depending on muscular strength and endurance exercises; builds bone; improves coordination; some improvements in flexibility, depending on stretches.

Risks: falling off the step can lead to accidental injury; knee problems.

Recommended frequency: up to three times a week, allowing a rest day between sessions.

Training advice: to protect the knee joints, the step should remain low. Planting the whole foot firmly on the step minimizes the risk of accidents. Start with beginners’ classes to learn the choreography; if you find a routine too complicated, leave out the arm movements until you have mastered the foot choreography. Allow yourself time and do not be discouraged.

Making progress: increasing the height of the step gives a more intense workout, but also increases the stress on the knees. Working harder pushes the heart rate into the upper end of the target training zone. An advanced class can provide new challenges.

Dance training

Dancing can be excellent exercise, and many people find it more enjoyable than formal exercise classes. It can burn as many calories as walking, swimming or riding a bicycle. One study found that participants in a dancing class covered almost 8km (5 miles) in one evening. Variations include ballroom dancing, waltzing, line dancing, salsa and rumba, jive and jazz dancing.

Age group: any age.

Special equipment: comfortable everyday clothing is suitable for most forms of dance. Shoes must be well-fitting to avoid blisters.

Benefits: vary with the type of dance, but include: aerobic fitness; fat-burning; improved coordination; bone-building.

Risks: leg joints may be stressed.

Recommended frequency: two to three times a week, depending on how vigorous the activity is.

Training advice: it is best to start each session gently before working hard, resting when feeling tired. Calf stretches are advisable after vigorous dancing.

Making progress: work for longer; incorporate more complex, high-impact steps such as jumps into the routine.

Classical ballet

This is a type of dance based on formalized movements and positions of the feet, arms and body, with the emphasis on controlled, light, graceful movement.

Age group: any age.

Special equipment: comfortable leotard and tights (or general sportswear) and canvas or leather ballet shoes.

Benefits: improves leg strength, flexibility and posture; develops poise and self-confidence.

Risks: can stress ankle, knee and hip joints; young children should not work on their points because their feet are particularly susceptible to damage.

Recommended frequency: two to three times a week.

Training advice: start gently with a warm- up and thorough stretching; combine with aerobic activities for all-round fitness.

Making progress: choose a class that offers a well-structured progression through the different levels of ballet training.

Weight training

Although weight training is usually carried our alone, rather than at a class, gyms usually have a number of fitness instructors in attendance to give advice, and most gyms require new members to attend at least one induction class. Weight training consists of repetitive movements (reps) to build muscular strength and endurance and to sculpt the body using fixed resistance machines, free weights and floor exercises. For all-round fitness, it should be combined with aerobic activity and plenty of stretching.

Age group: 18 years to old age. Weight training should not be done before the age of 18. Before this, the bones are relatively soft and are still growing; soft bones can be bent or twisted out of alignment if particular muscles are over-developed.

Special equipment: cross-trainers, sports clothing (optional training belt and gloves).

Benefits: all-over muscular strength and endurance; body sculpting.

Risks: accidental injury due to poor technique; delayed onset muscular soreness and pulled muscles; in-sufficient stretching can cause inflexibility.

Recommended frequency: two to three times a week. It is possible to work out on consecutive days by working the upper body one day, and the lower body the next. Other-wise, rest for a day between sessions, and two days after using heavy weights.

Training advice: to avoid injury, weight machines must be adjusted to the individual. At the start of a session, each muscle group should be warmed up and gently stretched. It is advisable to start with light weights and work each of the major muscle groups doing two sets of 15-20 reps (endurance training). Then progress to a weight heavy enough to tire the target muscle within eight to ten reps and work up to two sets (strength training). The last couple of reps in each set should present a challenge. After weight training, muscle groups that have not been worked for a while should be re-warmed and stretched.

Making progress: progress to heavier weights; add extra sets (you may need to reduce the number of reps per set initially, then build up again). When you feel ready for a more challenging workout, a fitness instructor should be able to advise on progressing the programme. She may suggest that you adopt different training systems, such as pyramiding or supersetting. Pyramiding involves performing different numbers of reps per set; the sets can get progressively longer or progressively shorter (for example, 6, 9, 12, 15 or the same in reverse). Supersetting involves working two opposing muscles – such as the biceps and triceps – in succession.