Nowadays, there’s a dizzying array of fitness trends. How do you decide which one is best for you?
Already having a hard time sticking to your new 2014 exercise regimen? Join the club. And the operative word here is join. Fitness experts say that joining a group class can be an effective way to keep yourself accountable and stick with your workout.
A room full of motivated people with like-minded goals harnesses a kind of energy and provides motivation that many of us are unlikely to find alone on a treadmill or with an exercise video in the living room. And with an instructor at the ready to help you move safely and effectively, you might even take the opportunity to try something new.
Given the many different trends in fitness, how do you choose which class is right for you?
Jill Brown of Los Angeles, a fitness trainer and instructor of more than 20 years, shares some wisdom. Brown teaches everything from Pilates to boot camps and spinning. She notes that people who are social in nature are attracted to the group dynamics, as are some shier individuals, as they can hide in the crowd.
No matter your motivations, Brown says it’s critical to manage your expectations when starting a new class. There is no quick fix and no magic cure-all when it comes to getting fit.
“Nothing gives you everything. My wisest word of wisdom for everybody is to cross-train, cross-train, cross-train,” Brown says. “The more you are adapted to a particular workout, the fewer calories you burn as your body becomes accustomed to the routine and more efficient at performing those moves. Cross-training [will] keep the body guessing.” And, she adds, if you mix disciplines, you’re less likely to sustain an overuse injury.
A good workout schedule, Brown says, could look something like this: “You have one or two high-intensity days where you do something like spinning or boot camp. Then you have a few days where you do something a little kinder or gentler like Pilates or yoga. And then have a day when you take a nice long walk, or go for an endurance jog or a hike.”
Brown also stresses the importance of including impact in workouts, particularly for women beginning at age 35 to 40, as the impact helps build bone density and can stave off osteoporosis. “[You need] something where your foot is literally coming up in the air and it’s landing on the ground,” she says. “Cycling does not count. Pilates doesn’t not count as a high-impact workout, yoga doesn’t count, and swimming doesn’t count.” Be sure to develop your impact routine under the guidance of a fitness professional, and as with any form of exercise, start off slowly and gently and build up.
Finally, when trying a new workout method, don’t push it—at least, not too hard. If you start a program that is too challenging or intense, you’re more likely to drop out, not to mention injure yourself.
“Think about it: if you’re new to something and you get hurt doing it, how likely are you to come back once you’re healed? It kinda leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Brown says. “The best policy is to find an activity where you can be somewhat successful in the early phases. Once you’re hooked, then even if you pull something or have a little setback, you’ll be back.”
And always be sure to tell the instructor if you’re new. “That way she knows to keep an eye on you and encourage you when you feel frustrated or need a little help learning a skill.”
Yoga has become nothing short of a phenomenon in this country, with everyone from preschoolers to professional baseball players practicing their downward dogs and deep breathing. On some city streets, yoga pants have become as ubiquitous as jeans. But fashion trends aside, yoga is not new. The practice, emphasizing coordinated breathing and poses, originated in India centuries ago and, more recently, has been linked with a wide range of health benefits. Yoga helps with stress, anxiety, and depression. Medical studies have also associated yoga with reduced blood pressure and heart rate, relief from chronic low-back pain and insomnia, and improved overall fitness, strength, and flexibility. Ongoing studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health are looking into other possible benefits of yoga, including its effect on diabetes risk, HIV, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and smoking cessation.
Yoga comes in many forms; some of the most popular methods include hatha, Iyengar, Bikram (get ready to sweat), and power yoga. Each is very different and provides different levels of intensity. Try a class or two of each and decide which is the best fit.
The Pilates method, like yoga, helps with balance and flexibility but has a greater emphasis on core muscle strengthening. Much of its full-body conditioning targets hips, legs, back, spine, and especially the abs. The method has its origins in early 20th-century Germany, where its namesake, Joseph Pilates, invented an approach emphasizing concentration and precision. Indeed, he called it “contrology.” Since then, Pilates has taken many forms—yogalates, aqualates, Barrelates—and while some classes use props like foam rollers and elastic bands, and others use specialized machines, all you really need to practice Pilates is a mat on a hard floor.
“If you came from a dance background, and you like working on your flexibility and you like your movements to be a little more graceful, more dancey, then you’ll gravitate toward Pilates,” Brown says. “The downside of Pilates is that it offers very little cardio. My recommendation: if you think you’re going to gravitate toward Pilates—which is softer, gentler, or no impact—don’t count that as your cardio.”
If you’re not so into the deep concentration demanded by yoga or Pilates—and you want to break a real sweat—you might want to consider a boot camp. As the name suggests, it’s intense. Boot camps tend to be based on calisthenic exercises, such as jumping jacks, push-ups, lunges, crunches, and sit-ups. There are a variety of styles, but most include a mix of aerobics and strength training and are paced with quick bursts of high intensity followed by intervals of gentler movements.
“If you gravitate toward really basic movement—and like that it gets progressively more challenging—and you like short milestones, boot camp is great for you. Usually it’s a one-minute interval of this, a one-minute interval of that,” Brown says. “You’ll be doing squats for a minute, push-ups for a minute, bicep curls for a minute, and then you’re on to the next. So it’s great for that type of personality.”
If you’re looking for something even more extreme, and perhaps even more true to a military experience, there’s CrossFit, the super-intense workout routine that mixes aerobic exercises, gymnastics, and heavy weight lifting. Brown says it’s especially important to make sure you have a good instructor when starting out in CrossFit, as risk for injury can be high.
For those looking for something on the aerobic and strengthening side but maybe not quite so intense, Brown suggests cardio-sculpting classes. “It’s not crazy intense like boot camp, but it’s not as low impact as Pilates,” she says.
Many gyms offer some variety of cardio-sculpting. Brown says to look for class descriptions that include strength and weight training with cardio moves. “You’ll get a little bit of dance and you’ll get some weights,” she says. “It’s a good middle ground for someone who needs a little of both.”
If this approach sounds appealing, you might also want to try a hip-hop or Zumba dance class, a high-energy workout based on Latin American music. Both classes are commonly offered with gym memberships.
Who would have thought a room full of sweaty people on stationary bicycles would be so popular? Not only popular: The dedication to some classes can be downright cultish.
And then, there are spin-offs.
SoulCycle, started in New York City, is designed to be a full-body workout in 45 minutes. In addition to ensuring cardio and calorie burning, it aims to build core strength and includes basic weight training.
Brown, however, is skeptical about the effectiveness of SoulCycle’s use of weights. “I’d rather get off the bike and use real weights, rather than sit on a bike and lift something too light,” Brown says. “But if you have only 45 or 50 minutes a day, a little something is better than nothing.”
Flywheel, Brown says, is more likely to appeal to actual cyclists. What sets Flywheel apart is the emphasis on “torque”—basically, your power output—which is displayed on your individual bike and can be a motivator to push yourself harder.
Because spinning classes in general are so music based, Brown says the soundtrack can make or break your motivation. Also, she cautions spinners to find an instructor who is knowledgeable. As with all workouts, this is especially important for avoiding injury.
Both SoulCycle and Flywheel are trademarked classes taught by certified instructors. If you don’t want to shell out extra cash for these classes, check to see if your gym offers spinning free with its memberships. “Just find an instructor who works for you,” Brown says.
Finally, for a totally different kind of music-based workout, there’s Pound. This workout is cardio in nature, while drawing on Pilates and isometric movements for its poses. Pound’s signature drumsticks are incorporated throughout the session. You’ll create a rhythm by dipping down to tap the sticks on the floor, for instance, and then spring up and hit them overhead.
“It’s like you’re mimicking playing the drums,” Brown says. “It’s a cool concept, especially for the musically inclined person.” But when she tried Pound herself, Brown says, all of the bending over and hitting the ground hurt her back. “I don’t recommend it for people who don’t like bending over a lot.”
“If you really like music and music is your thing, and you don’t have any issues with your back, then you might want to try it, because it’s really about the music.” DW
Leah Bartos is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California, where her favorite form of exercise is hiking with her partner and their dog.