Step It Up

4th January 2013

Heather Harris charts the changing face of exercise classes

Standing on one leg in a boiling hot warehouse with my hands on my head, I reflect how times have changed. Just a couple of decades ago if anyone had suggested that Bikram Yoga (aka ‘hot yoga’: think torture in a sauna) would be the latest exercise craze, you’d have thought that the heat had gone to their head. The same goes for Spinning. Imagine the response to a brainstorming session where a fitness instructor tentatively suggested super glueing bikes to the gym floor and inviting us to pedal away our cellulite.

But that’s the thing with exercise (a justifiably popular ‘New Year New You’ resolution) When it comes to ‘going for the burn’ we’re fickle. Technicolour sweat bands and high cut leotards have been replaced by skin-tight Lycra and sturdy sports bras and we’re now more likely to be wading through mud on Boot Camps than doing the grapevine to Madonna’s Greatest Hits.

Despite a recent Horizon documentary suggesting that we need to exercise for only three minutes a week – marginally less than it takes to eat a Big Mac and fries – the fact is that the fitness market is still as active as its customers.

Making pounds from the continued human desire to lose pounds has always been a healthy business model. The fitness industry has recently been estimated to have piled £33.5 billion on to the UK economy.

Ever since Marcus Cicero stated, around 65BC, “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigour”, the positive feeling induced by getting out for a decent spell of Roman chariot racing rather than sitting around in a thermal bath was clear.

However, incredibly, it wasn’t until a study of men working on the buses in 1949 that the link between physical health and exercise (or lack of it) was officially reported. A team led by Dr Jerry Morris noted that men of similar social class and occupation (bus conductors versus drivers) suffered significantly different rates of heart attacks according on their level of exercise they got: bus drivers – sedentary occupation – had a higher incidence of heart disease, while bus conductors, forced to move about continually, had a lower incidence.

Skip forward (burning approximately ten calories a minute) to 1982 and following success in the USA, Jane Fonda released her first exercise video on an unprepared British public. As David Minton, from monitoring company The Leisure Database, told me, “Local Authority sports halls suddenly had up to a thousand women a night donning their leg warmers and doing the Fonda workout”. And once we’d started, there was simply no stopping us. Now it is a local council requirement for their residents to be just a short jog or invigorating pedal away from a public leisure centre complete with eye-stinging pool, communal changing room (oh, please…) and mirrored exercise studio.

Add to this the opening of Fitness First in 1993, followed by ten other major private UK health clubs including David Lloyd, Virgin Active and LA Fitness and there’s really no excuse not to do the 20 minutes of exercise a day championed by our jogging Prime Minister.

No excuse, that is, except boredom.

In a study of why 70% of people give up a New Year’s Resolution to ‘do more exercise’ before they’ve finished the leftover turkey, ‘monotony’ was cited as the main reason. That’s why today’s leisure club timetables offer more choice than the average Chinese Takeaway. Starting at 6.30am at our local gym we can do Boxercise; Fab Abs; Body Conditioning; Legs, Tums and Bums and Pilates before most people have had their 11 o’clock muffin. Then there’s Bikini Boot Camp, Run Fit, Back Fit, Body Pump and Aqua Aerobics to add to the exhaustive (or exhausting) list. And for those who prefer to dance away that third packet of Hob Nobs, Salsa and Zumba have shimmied their way into our affections and the local village hall.

Ruth Woods from the Fitness Industry Association (motto ‘more people, more active, more often’) observes, “I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the enormous effect Zumba has had on our industry.“ (Or our waistlines). And all because back in 1986 Columbian choreographer Alberto Perez forgot his usual music for an aerobics class he was teaching. He took the tapes in his backpack – which happened to be traditional salsa – and hey presto, it was goodbye grapevine and hello hip action. There are now 12 million people taking weekly Zumba classes at over 110,000 locations in 126 countries. With each mover and shaker burning between 500 and 1000 calories an hour, that’s enough energy to power the National Grid.

For those who prefer their exercise to be more sedate, Joseph Pilates recently replaced Jane Fonda as the guru of choice. Not only did he teach us that stretching is the new sweating, but also that Granny Smiths are not the only things with a core.

Personally, any class that means you can eat a piece of toast at the same time is fine by me, but it just doesn’t seem like real exercise. It calls to mind the Power Plate – that big vibrating machine that Gwyneth Paltrow apparently swears by, which simply makes me wonder… surely sitting on a washing machine at 1200rpm would have pretty much the same effect – and make significant inroads into your laundry pile at the same time. I’m all for multi-tasking.

Equipment is another recent phenomenon. Forget the simple mat and towel, now we like our classes to be high tech. Witness the recent arrival of the Flexi Bar – no, not a pub with variable opening hours – but a long weighted rod that vibrates when swung and has almost supernatural belly-busting, arm-trimming powers. It’s ‘a fantastic tool used by everyone to improve general fitness as well as very specific areas, including weight loss, mobility problems, sports training, injury rehabilitaion, back care and core training’, to quote its enthusiastic marketeers, but I can see it going the way of the exercise ball…

What house would be complete without one? A huge Bouncy Hopper (in everything but name, and minus the ears), it was bought for its ability to give us cores of steel… all you needed to do was bounce, bend and balance on it while you watched Coronation Street; now it sits, deflated and dusty (just like its owners), in the corner.

Even top tax bracketeers with fully equipped home gyms admit that most of their equipment is never used. All over the country this summer, cross trainers and treadmills, exercise bikes and rowing machines stood gathering dust while their owners were far too busy watching the Olympics to use them.

My husband is the proud owner of seven pairs of sports shoes. One for every day of the week he doesn’t work out. My father put his foot in it by pointing out that in his day they ran marathons in plimsolls, not £100 trainers with inbuilt Sat Nav and outboard motor. Ironically the latest pair he added to the collection was for the new fitness craze to hit the track – barefoot running, in the footsteps of Kenyans and the Ethiopians whose marathon expertise is legendary.

Exercise is good for you, yes, but shoes for running barefoot? – makes yoga in a sauna sound positively normal.

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