Are group fitness classes effective?

I taught two group fitness classes yesterday morning. Back to back. I do this most Saturdays. Out of curiosity, I wore my heart rate monitor this time. First, I wanted to see how high my heart rate got during some of the exercises I selected for the TABATA class. I did not intend for the heart rate to get too high, and it didn’t. Second, I was curious as to how many calories I would burn during two hours of teaching – two classes that I heavily participate in.

When I stopped my heart rate monitor at 2 hours and 2 minutes, I was disappointed: 890 calories. To give you some perspective, my average 45-60 minute workout burns 500-700 calories. Granted, this was not the same intensity, nor designed to be my workout, but it led me to think critically about whether my classes were adequate and appropriate – and about the overall effectiveness of group fitness.

Intended outcome?

Why do most individuals attend group fitness classes? Most have the goal to lose weight. Are group fitness classes targeting that goal? I believe that the answer to this question is complicated – it is both yes and no.

For example, depending on the exercise selection, TABATA can be a effective and efficient workout. I perform this form of high intensity interval training on a regular basis. I design my classes in an equally effective manner (with a lesser degree of intensity). BUT, if a member comes to my Saturday morning class and this is the 8th class she has been to this week, will it be effective? Will the intended outcome be reached? Probably not.

Desired results far too uncommon

I have been in and out of my fair share of gyms. When you are a group fitness instructor, by default you end up filling in at what seems to be every workout facility within a 30-mile radius. And unfortunately, I have seen very few members achieve their desired results. Weight loss. Improved fitness. Very few group fitness programs will get you this results. Even more disheartening, is that I would see the same faces over and over – watching some individuals attend 8-10 hours of classes a week – with no results. Sadly, most of these individuals are overtraining. Some are undernourished due to extending periods of dieting and/or yo-yo dieting. Most are frustrated and at a loss for what else to do.

Solution

It is pretty simple. While I am not a proponent of many group fitness classes, I will not suggest that you forgo the classes. I will recommend the following:

  1. Attend NO MORE than 4 group fitness classes a week. Most group fitness classes target the same muscles, energy systems, etc. and miss the same muscle groups, form, technique, and energy systems.
  2. Research your instructor – ONLY take classes led by degreed and certified professionals. This one may be tough. There are some good instructors out there who do not have degrees, they have been fanatics for years and they bring good energy and great intentions. But generally speaking, you want to work with someone who has been trained to manage situations as they arise – providing variety that is safe, efficient, and effective.
  3. Work with a qualified trainer first. While working with a qualified personal trainer long term is not always financially feasible, it is in your best interest to invest the time and money into a few (3-12) foundational sessions with a trainer. A qualified trainer will teach you form and technique that the group fitness instructor simply is unable to provide in the setting (some know your form is off but are not able to correct form on every person every hour). With this investment, you will gain valuable knowledge that you can bring with you and ensure that you get the most out of your workout.
  4. Wear a heart rate monitor. Sweat is not indicative of a good workout – however most group fitness class attendees use sweat as the measure of whether the workout was good. It is not the only indicator. Neither is soreness the only nor the best indicator of a good workout. What else can you measure? Your heart rate. Target heart rates are highly individual – for more specifics please contact me personally.
  5. Change? If you have been going to the same class for years – it is time for something new!
  6. Give it your all. Some times a group class can become social hour. While this is not all bad, remember why you are there and give it 100%!

The bottomline

Not all group fitness classes are bad. These classes can be a great way to build community support and accountability. But if you are a regular attendee, be honest as to whether you are getting the results for the time and energy you put into the work. If you go to classes every day, and are not getting the results you desire, you may be overtraining – or simply inefficiently training.

I love group fitness classes – that is how I got my start. (It is also the reason I suffered overuse injuries and eventually elected to have surgery.) Follow the 6 recommendations above and you can get the most out of those classes!

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How long should I workout?

I have said this before. I will say it over and over and over and hopefully reach more individuals with each post. There is no reason to workout for longer than 45 minutes to an hour. Further, surpassing one hour and 15 minutes puts you at risk of diminishing returns.

My antecedent
Recently the comment was made to one of my class attendees – why do I not make my class longer if there is no class after it. This was a gym employee, referencing me and my class. My class is an hour. 8-10 minutes to warmup 40-45 minutes of WORK and 5-10 cool down and stretch. (This is based on science, as well as the accepted exercise recommendations.)

Diminishing returns
What does that mean? In its simplest sense, it means you will continue to work but that the results will taper off. In other words – you begin working for nothing. If you are desiring weight loss, working out for a single extended period of time will not increase weight loss. If you desire strength gains, you will not see greater results from a longer workout and may even see fewer overall strength gains as a result.

Click the link for a great overview of the principles to fitness development.

A time and a place
There is a time and a place for everything. Are there situations when lengthy workouts will happen? Sure, for body building type workouts. For endurance athletes – who also refuel and train diligently and mindfully.

Unless you are an adrenaline junkie, fitness fanatic, athlete, or fitness professional, the chances are that you do not WANT to workout, let alone workout for extended periods for time (e.g., and hour or more). I cannot think of a single good reason to make a group fitness class longer than one hour. I will not set individuals up to dislike exercise. I will not set them up to see minimal to no results. I will set you up for success.

The bottomline
What is the hope from working out longer? Improved results? This is unlikely. Improved health? Research shows that you can improve health and fitness in as little as four minutes (review research by Dr. Izumi Tabata and colleagues).

Do you just want to workout for a longer period of time because you love it? Then go ahead and do it. But know that results will not improve.