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A pole-dancing instructor in Beijing. Some experts are concerned that risqu� classes play to body image, not overall wellness. (JASON LEE/Jason Lee/Reuters)
A pole-dancing instructor in Beijing. Some experts are concerned that risqu� classes play to body image, not overall wellness. (JASON LEE/Jason Lee/Reuters)

Exercise

Shape up Sex and the City-style, but don't count on any real gains Add to ...

Pliés and grand jetés kept Jean Kwong active and trim when she was in high school, but when the Torontonian entered university, she fell off the fitness bandwagon. Her friends signed up for gym memberships to get back in shape, but Ms. Kwong wasn't interested.

"I get bored quite easily and running is just too tough for me," the former dancer says.

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But in 2007 she found the perfect solution. By the end of her first Coyote Ugly class at Flirty Girl Fitness, the normally quiet and reserved information technology consultant was standing on top of a bar, shimmying her shoulders and thrusting her pelvis.

Two and a half years later, Ms. Kwong, 25, goes to the gym at least three times a week to get her cardio, flexibility and muscular strength fixes in the form of classes such as Pole Tricks and Bikini Boot Camp.

Fitness clubs have rolled out all manner of sexed-up group classes in recent years to lure women who are intimidated by the gym scene. But some, such as the ones launched at two Toronto-area fitness centres this week that encourage women to swap their cross-trainers for stilettos (both are Sex and the City 2 tie-ins), have dubious health benefits. They may lure reluctant women into gyms, fitness experts say, but it's unlikely that they'll lead to the adoption of long-term exercise plans.

The problem with such classes is that they focus less on cardiovascular health and overall fitness and more on body image, says Kathleen Martin Ginis, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton who has researched the psychosocial influences on athletic participation.

"I'm all for anything that can entice women into being more physically active … but the flip side is that it really sexualizes physical activity," she says.

"You have to come to appreciate the inherent pleasures of exercise, stress relief, feeling better about yourself and your body. Focusing on your appearance may draw women in, but it's not going to work to sustain exercise."

Michelle Epstein, a managing director at Toronto's Flirty Girl Fitness, says her company's risqué classes are the "hooks" to get women to walk into the gym, with the hope that they'll register for other classes in the long term.

While says the XXX Power Strip class incorporates a lot of cardio and Chair Striptease offers a great core workout, she acknowledges "there are not a lot of exercise benefits in [the Lap Dancing]class" - which is meant to be more fun than sweat-inducing.

Extreme Fitness is launching a four-week-long Sex and the City 2 High Heel Boot Camp, which is marketed as a lower-body sculpting class (Flirty Girl's Stiletto Strut class is the other movie tie-in).

Jacque Walters, the Toronto-based vice-president of group fitness at Extreme Fitness, says it's "supposed to be fun and a little bit of fitness - it's fun for people to get together with girl friends at the gym."

After a warm-up, participants are invited to slip into a pair of stilettos for the cardio portion of the class, she says.

"Because they're in high heels, we're not having them do jumping jacks or anything that's dangerous," she says. Instead, it's a lot of walking movement - "it's more of a strut."

That's followed by squats, lunges, calf exercises and a dance routine.

"It's like getting kids to eat vegetables," she says. "They're having fun and not realizing how much work they're doing until two days later when they realize how sore they are."

Bob Vigars, a professor of health sciences at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., takes issue with how such classes are marketed.

Many promise women sculpted arms and flat stomachs, but in reality, they don't work the body hard enough to deliver such results, he says.

"One should be careful of selling the idea that if you do this exercise, before you know it, you're going to look like Sarah Jessica Parker," Prof. Vigars says.

"If they define fitness as burning up calories, you have to have [muscles]contract continuously, rhythmically, and for 20 to 30 minutes non-stop," he says. "If you're doing what I envision them doing - stripping and pole dancing - there's not much energy production there."



Nevertheless, Ms. Kwong is more than satisfied with the physical and mental results from taking "provocative" exercise classes.

"A motivation to go to one of those classes is if you look at women in music videos. You start to wonder to yourself, 'Why can't I do the same, you know, outside of your own bedroom?' "

In Prof. Ginis's eyes, the desire to look like a background dancer in a music video may get women through the front door of a gym, but, unlike Ms. Kwong, won't cultivate a long-term commitment to fitness.

"That might be the reason why women start exercising, but we know that with almost complete certainty that that desire isn't going to sustain your desire to exercise over the long term," she says.

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