Fellow exercisers may keep you motivated, and learning proper form can help you avoid injuries.
Is your solo walking or cycling routine getting a little humdrum? Maybe it’s time to try a group fitness class at your local gym or community center. Working out with others in a class led by a trained instructor may help you stick to an exercise routine, which is a vital part of keeping your heart healthy.
“We know that in a broad sense, the more fit you are, the longer you live,” says Dr. Meagan Wasfy, a cardiologist at the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Exactly how you achieve that fitness doesn’t seem to matter—the main thing is making it happen. Group fitness classes, which come in a wide range of styles and intensities, may offer certain advantages toward that goal.
Raising your heart rate
Most exercise classes fall into two main categories: those that feature aerobic exercise (the type that boosts your heart and breathing rate) and those that focus on increasing strength and flexibility. Aerobic exercise is the best way to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. The classes can range from low to moderate intensity, such as dancing or water aerobics, to more vigorous workouts, such as spinning or kickboxing (see “Exercise classes: Something for everyone”).
Most last 30 to 60 minutes and typically alternate between higher-intensity activity and active rest. For example, you might jog in place for a minute, and then step slowly from side to side for 20 seconds or so, with a goal of keeping your heart rate elevated the entire time. This strategy, called interval training, can lead to better fitness over a shorter time period compared with simply walking at a constant pace, says Dr. Wasfy. Some classes also incorporate hand weights or resistance bands to add some strength training to the workout.
Maintaining your strength, flexibility, and balance is important to staying independent and avoiding frailty as you age. For those prone to heart problems, yoga and tai chi are particularly good choices. Both have been shown to help lower blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors. In addition, some research suggests that yoga may help lessen symptoms of the heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation, while tai chi may enhance stamina in people with heart failure.
Being in a class setting may offer a psychological boost, as the combination of the music, your fellow exercisers, and the instructor can provide motivation to keep you going. A good instructor should also provide guidance on proper form and technique, which can help you avoid injuries.
Committing to a class has some disadvantages. In addition to the cost, showing up at a certain time is less convenient than simply slipping on your walking shoes and heading outside. Also, some people may push themselves too hard in an effort to keep up with other participants, cautions Dr. Wasfy. “Listen to your body and go at your own pace,” she advises. Always stop immediately if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or too winded. Anyone middle-aged or older or who has health issues should consult a doctor before starting an exercise program.
Exercise classes: Something for everyone
If you’re new to exercise, seek out a class for beginners. Classes that are geared for beginners and older people usually move at a slower pace and may be described as gentle, easy, or low-impact. More intense cardio classes (like those with descriptions that include “pump” or “combat”) may be too challenging for all but the most dedicated fitness enthusiasts. Ask the instructor if you have any questions. Below are some popular options.
Water aerobics. Involves exercises in waist- to neck-high water in a swimming pool, sometimes with weights or flotation devices. Good for people with arthritis or other joint or muscle problems.
Zumba. Combines steps from a variety of traditional dances, often to Latin music. A version geared to baby boomers is called Zumba Gold.
Spinning. Alternates between low- and high-intensity pedaling to music on stationary bikes.
Kickboxing. Features punches, kicks, and lunges for a high-energy cardio workout.
Stretching and strengthening workouts
Yoga. Combines stretching and balancing poses with controlled breathing, relaxation, and meditation.
Tai chi. Teaches sequences of graceful, slow movements, usually done standing, accompanied by deep breathing and focused awareness.
Pilates. Uses low-impact exercises and stretches focused on strengthening muscles in the torso, performed on a gym mat or with special equipment.