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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Hooray! A heart rate story

I have a new heart rate monitor thanks to a dear friend who surrendered his to me. He was not using it and I suspect the heart rate monitor was becoming sad. I pray that I do not kill this one as I did my other (although I do think that it is inevitable). I remembered to wear it 4 of the first 7 days it was in my possession. I remembered to start it 3 of those 4 days. For the girl who once could not workout without one, I sure have not been very good about using this new one.

My heart rate does not get as high as it used to. I am older than I used to be, which could be one factor. And I believe that I do not push myself as hard as I used to – I do not have my maniac workout friends to cultivate the competitive culture I was once engulfed in. And having worked out without the monitor for so long, I know my level of intensity decreased and I need to become comfortable with getting uncomfortable again. I also suspect that I may have increased my cardiac fitness – but this is anecdotal and unverified. IMG_0898

Grieving the loss of my heart rate monitor

Do you use heart-rate based training? Although it has its limitation, monitoring your heart rate during exercise can be incredibly beneficial. If you do not use one, how do you determine whether you are working with enough intensity? Knowing that the biggest battle is the mental game, how confident are you that your perception of how hard you are working is accurate? FT7

While I highly encourage that everyone invest in a quality heart rate monitor (e.g., Polar, Garmin), it can be liberating to work without it. Having consistently worn a heart rate monitor for years, my heart rate monitor died several months ago and I have been working out without it ever since. This has given me a great sense of freedom. I was to a point where I was obsessive about burning an obscene amount of calories according to my monitor – which I know is inaccurate anyway!

Positives

I am focused on my task at hand – lifting a weight or performing a movement – with no distraction of looking at my watch.

I am not smashing  my watch with the kettlebell. Now that I think about it, I wonder if all that smashing shortened its life.

I do not have to remember all the pieces AND to turn it on before a workout.

Negatives

I have no idea what my heart rate is – I know my intensity has decreased as I do not have a number to ‘shoot for.’

Without a watch, I am not timing my workouts.

I cannot brag about how high my heart rate has been. (Mine gets freakishly high.)

I miss the immediate reinforcement of being shown that I burned a given amount of calories – even when I knew it was inaccurate. I feel like without the watch I am not burning calories (our minds are tricky, aren’t they?).

The bottomline

I am honestly pretty lost without my heart rate monitor. I do not believe this is a terrible dependency, seen as I know that it is not a completely accurate tool. I know I could be pushing myself harder in my workouts, but I like having that number goal.

The good news, I will have my replacement monitor in about a week! I may be lost, but I will be found!!!!! And as I work towards being in the best shape of my life by May, being found is more critical than ever!