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sweat test

Flirty Girl Fitness in Chicago is one of many gyms in North America that offer Zumba classes. The dance fitness program merges exercise with upbeat music and dancing – ranging from salsa to merengue to hip hop.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

If you like dancing – or have two left feet but enjoy laughing at yourself as I do – consider Zumba. I tried a class at Goodlife in Toronto, but gyms across the country offer Zumba, as do many boutique studios.

The promise

According to the Zumba website, Zumba is a "fun and effective" dance fitness class that provides "A total workout, combining all elements of fitness – cardio, muscle conditioning, balance and flexibility, boosted energy and a serious dose of awesome each time you leave class."

It also says the classes are for "everybody and every body," so I figured why not test the theory and went with my mom, 63, friend and fellow triathlete Nate, 43, and Anna, a friend visiting from Germany, 19.

What to expect

Expect upbeat music and dancing, including salsa, merengue, mambo, flamenco, soca, samba, hip hop and tango – and if you can lean into the experience, smiles, cheering, a good sweat and possibly a few giggles.

Basic Zumba is an hour of dancing and more dancing. Iterations include Zumba Toning (which includes strength training), Zumba Core (targeting the core) and Zumba Gold (aimed at an older demographic).

A unique element of Zumba is that you receive very few verbal cues. The teacher shouts encouraging words and a few basic instructions, but mostly students watch and mimic. My mom loved this; usually she has to fight to hear instructions and ends up frustrated. Anna – whose first language is German – also appreciated that she could follow the class. If you like clear instructions you might find this "watch and do" approach frustrating.

The verdict

I was pleasantly surprised. I had expected my mom to love the class – she likes choreographed activities – but as triathletes I figured Nate and I wouldn't think the workout was intense enough. We all left smiling. Nate and I are not going to give up our sport, but we both enjoyed the escape of the workout more than expected. It was fun.

Fun is one of Zumba's main selling points. Finding a workout you enjoy is key; it is much harder to motivate yourself to move if you hate the activity. My mom loved Zumba because it combined something she felt she "should do" with something she gets pleasure from; this combo made her want to do Zumba regularly. Once you get rid of the chore-like "have-to-ness" of exercise, it often becomes much easier to be active regularly.

Zumba requires reactivity and dynamic motion; students have to follow the teacher's instructions (which challenges the brain) and move in all different directions. This is a huge positive since most of our bodies desperately need multidirectional movements. Too many of us don't move enough – we sit – and when we do move it tends to be in linear and repetitive ways (think walking, cycling or the elliptical).

The cumulative effect is a body that is stiff and somewhat robotic. Having to react and dance in appropriate multidirectional patterns challenges the brain, increases cardiovascular fitness, improves agility and co-ordination, strengthens muscles and bones from multiple angles and enhances mobility. My mom said that after the class she felt as if her joints had been "oiled." Nate agreed. As a triathlete he always moves in a straight line, which leaves his body feeling stiff. Zumba left him feeling agile and thus could be an excellent addition to his off-season training, providing variety, mobility and mental stimulation.

Last, I appreciate that, since the class requires such intense concentration, no one seemed to have time to look around and judge others. What a welcome change. Too often, fitness discourse is steeped in judgment, criticism and comparison.

No workout is perfect. I have two caveats. Straight Zumba classes offer a primarily cardiovascular workout. Complement dancing with strength training – strength is a must for everybody.

Second, as mentioned above, Zumba requires side-to-side and diagonal motions, and depending on the teacher the moves can be fairly high-impact. If you know you have joint issues, ask the instructor to show you low-impact versions, consider cross-training with low-impact activities such as swimming and, as with all exercise, modify as needed.

Zumba classes are a welcoming and a fun workout. For me Zumba will be an occasional experience. It is not my personal bliss but, who knows, it might be yours. You won't know until you try.

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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