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sweat test

Aerobics may be past its heyday, but the format is very much alive and well as the exercise gets a modern makeover.Getty Images/iStockphoto

If loud, upbeat music and choreographed "dance-esque" moves – not to mention the potential to trip over your own feet as you turn, twist and often giggle – sounds intriguing, then aerobics might be for you.

If you're thinking, "Aerobics? The nineties called. They want their workout back," you are both right and wrong. Aerobics may be past its heyday, but the format is very much alive – with both original and updated versions (like Zumba). Synchronized cardio-dance workouts will never fully die; devotees love getting lost in the music and mastering tricky combinations.

The promise

I took aerobics newbies Bill and Brad (both 34) to Toronto's Ultimate Athletics, which bills its classes as a "choreograph-packed cardio class [that] will kick up your heart rate as you burn calories."

What to expect

Loud music. Sweat. Choreographed "fun."

Picture Vlad – at least six feet, two inches tall – leading 12-plus participants (three-quarters women) through a series of bum kicks, shuffles, diagonal runs, punches and turning double grapevines. Combinations build on one another. The grand finale is typically running through the combos multiple times back to back without stopping.

Organized – yet fun – chaos. Bill's initial feedback was simply, "That was hilarious," and Brad laughed that he "was constantly facing the wrong direction."

Did we mention sweat?

Brad admitted to being afraid of slipping on his own sweat puddles. Bill could not hold a plank – his elbows were too sweaty.

Participants ranged in fitness level and ability. People took water breaks and modified moves when needed. The trait everyone shared was the ability to lean into the experience – vital with aerobics, as there is huge opportunity to feel silly.

My favourite moment? Watching Vlad grab Bill and Brad and polka across the floor; all three were wholeheartedly leaning in.

The verdict

Bill and Brad thought "the workout exceeded expectations."

They were surprised by the endurance, co-ordination and athleticism required. Plus, they had fun. I felt "at home." I used to teach more than 15 aerobics classes a week. After a 10-year-plus hiatus, the moves still felt second nature.

In addition to the cardiovascular rewards and the fun, the format has two main strengths: multidirectional movements and challenging your brain.

Bill and Brad said it best: Aerobics "works everything, not just some things."

Too many of us primarily move in repetitive forward patterns. Think walking, running or biking. Our brain, muscles and joints become conditioned to exist within limited ranges. Aerobics is an excellent counter; you don't just do "knees up," you do "crossover knees." When you do move forward, you then move backward.

The main negative is that aerobics is primarily an endurance cardio workout, which is fine if used as part of your weekly program, but not if it is your solo event.

Strength training in particular should be a non-negotiable part of everyone's fitness recipe. It helps increase muscular strength and lean tissue, functional and athletic capacity and bone density. It also improves posture, manages glycemic control and conditions such as diabetes and osteoporosis and decreases risk of developing metabolic syndrome (which, among other variables, is associated with increased abdominal girth).

I have started using aerobic moves as part of dynamic warm-ups with clients and personally. The result? The co-ordination and brain benefits of aerobics without having to do a full class.

Curious? Start with 20 "wide/wide/narrow/narrow" steps (right foot wide, left foot wide, right foot narrow, left foot narrow). Then do 20 grapevines (step right, cross left in front of right, step right, tap left against right, repeat left). Next, 20 "single/single/double" knees up (single right knee, single left knee, two right knees, repeat left). Finally, do "crisscross jumping jacks" (cross your legs in front as you jack). Finally, put it together. Grapevine right. Wide/wide/narrow/narrow steps. Single/single/double knees, starting right foot. Four crisscross jumping jacks. Repeat left. When you get bored of these moves, Google new ones.

Who should try it?

Brad felt aerobics requires too much endurance for beginners. Bill felt anyone could do it – just modify when needed or find an appropriate class.

I, characteristically, took the middle ground. Participants should have a minimum level of endurance (even beginner classes are 45-plus minutes of aerobic work) or be absolutely okay with leaving ego at the door and modifying when needed. Absolute beginners, be prepared for the music volume. Often, you can only decipher partial sentences – fine if you already know the moves, but extremely frustrating otherwise.

Intrigued? Need to mix up your workout or improve co-ordination? Try a class. Just remember, aerobics should be part of a well-rounded routine. As always, shop around and if you know your co-ordination is lacking, embrace that learning the moves will be half the fun.

If you like the concept of a dance-based workout but hate the idea of crowds or paying to jump around, freestyle in your living room or Google home workouts (the Fitness Marshall has hilarious combinations). My fitness journey started (gulp) almost 20 years ago with Richard Simmons DVDs. The living room still seems as good a place as any to twist and shout.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness

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