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ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal

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“I taught my first fitness class in 1978 while still in college so I have seen quite an evolution take place—and an exciting one at that. What I can say about group fitness is that, in my experience, it remains one of the most powerful tools with which to move someone from living an inactive life to finding the joy in active living. Generally, depending on the instructor and the overall class vibe, the group fitness experience allows those not fond of exercise to feel connected to a bigger picture of who they want to be in the world.” ∼∼ Melissa Hendrix Wogahn, M.A., Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Wellcoaches® Inc.


Leg warmers in assorted colors. Boom box charged and ready to go. Cassette tape with Neil Diamond’s latest and greatest songs available. All the items needed for a fitness instructor to head out the door and teach an aerobic dance class in the 1970s — the rest is history.

Group fitness can be traced back to 1968 when Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., introduced the concept of aerobic exercise. Cooper, widely known as the Father of the Modern Fitness Movement, encouraged people to exercise, with an emphasis on disease prevention rather than disease treatment (1). The next year, in 1969, Judi Sheppard Missett founded the dance-based fitness program Jazzercise consisting of 1-hour group fitness classes composed of cardio, strength, and stretch moves with elements of hip-hop, jazz dance, kickboxing, and resistance training for a total-body workout. Both milestones led to Jackie Sorensen taking the world by storm in the early 1970s. Sorensen took Cooper’s aerobics program, added music, and created one of the most influential fitness movements in modern history — aerobic dance — leading the way for today’s group fitness programs. More than 40 years later, Jazzercise is still here and Sorensen continues to produce new programs, remaining a fixture in the health and fitness industry.


Group fitness, or group exercise, is defined as exercise performed by a group of people that is led by an instructor or fitness professional (4). Group fitness exists in a variety of formats that include aerobics and dance choreographed to music, core conditioning, yoga, aquatic activity, resistance exercise, step, indoor cycling, kickboxing, functional training, fall prevention, and boot camp. In other words, just about every exercise program that comes to mind can be formatted into a group fitness experience led by a fitness professional.


The group exercise format provides a large variety of benefits for clients and health club members. These benefits include a social and fun environment, a safe and effectively designed workout, a consistent exercise schedule, an accountability factor for people participating in exercise, and a workout that requires no prior exercise knowledge or experience (4).

Often fitness professionals design and develop their own classes. However, today, there are several organizations that provide opportunities for “packaged” exercise-to-music group fitness programs. Some of these organizations include, but are not limited to, MOSSA also known as Body Training Systems, Les Mills, Zumba, and Silver Sneakers. As a fitness professional, these options are available to you and/or your health club. When investigating the programs, consider the training protocols, the emphasis on proper body alignment and technique, the relevance to the population you want to instruct, and licensing fees.


Class Basics

As with any exercise program, there are basic key instructional elements to learn and implement, particularly when instructing a group fitness class, whether it is a small group personal training session or a large set-to-music “pump” class. The following teaching tips are important toward ensuring a safe, relevant, and effective session for your clients and health club members — all are important.

  • Arrive early for class and stay late.
  • Be prepared. Know the class format for that day before you ever walk into the session.
  • Motivate your clients and students. Be encouraging.
  • Welcome new faces and help new people integrate into the class. Introduce them to others.
  • Remember the students in the back row. They are probably new participants and need your attention.
  • Provide instruction and demonstrate proper technique whenever necessary. Give options for modifying an exercise, such as a squat. Explain the “why” of an exercise.
  • If the class is set to music, change the songs and choreography at least every 12 weeks.
  • Remember, this is not YOUR hour to workout. You are there to instruct, lead the group, and help as needed.
  • Always remember that there are beginners as well as seasoned exercisers in a class. Find the best method to engage both in a session.
  • An effective class includes a warm-up and a cool-down as well as flexibility exercises. Don’t forget all the elements of a properly designed class.
  • Be a resource for those you teach. You cannot know everything, but you can identify resources where help is available — whether it is weight management or changes in lifestyle behavior.
  • Never stop learning yourself and keep all certifications current.
  • Love what you teach and smile often.

Josie Gardiner, the 2005 ACE Group Instructor of the Year and the 2002 IDEA Group Instructor of the Year, provides the following advice for fitness professionals: “After 40 years of teaching group fitness, I believe one of the greatest tips I can give to my students is: Listen to your body. You will know if something is not right. Do not feel pressured to do something because everyone else is doing it. Go at your own pace.”


In response to the need for qualified and experienced group fitness leaders, key organizations in the industry have developed certifications. As an example, a leading certification is the ACSM Certified Group Exercise Instructor™ (2). The ACSM Group Exercise Instructor has the skills to lead safe and effective exercise in group settings or individually. The Group Exercise Instructor learns to use a variety of leadership techniques to foster group camaraderie, support, and motivation while enhancing muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, body composition, and any of the motor skills related to the domains of health-related physical fitness (2).

Whether you are certified through ACSM or another organization in group fitness, the certification content should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • learning how to screen participants for known acute or chronic conditions to provide appropriate recommendations and/or exercise modifications;
  • establishing the purpose and determining the objectives of the class based on the needs of the participants and health club;
  • knowledge of the physiology of warm-up, stimulus, and cool-down and the FITT principle (i.e., frequency, intensity, time, and type) for developing and/or maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness training principles, for example, specificity, adaptation, and overload;
  • knowledge of different training formats such as continuous, circuit, interval, and progressive classes held for 4- to 6-week sessions (2).


Because of the fun and engaging format of group fitness, this mode of exercise is here to stay regardless of whether the class is small or large, set to music or not, on land or in the water, or inside a facility or outside under the blue sky. Men, women, children, and special populations all benefit from, and enjoy, the group fitness experience. In particular, opportunities abound within the baby boomer generation. This population wants to get fit and stay fit, and the social aspect of group fitness is the catalyst for many to join a health club and participate in the programs. And after decades as a female-dominated fitness option, group exercise has gone coed (3). Fun and challenging programming options that focus on quantifiable results rather than complex choreography are attracting more and more male participants.

Take a look around your health club and survey the needs of your members. Determine the population(s) within the facility that could benefit from the group fitness experience — not everyone wants to exercise alone. Develop the program and watch your clients and members blossom and derive the health benefits that Dr. Cooper wanted everyone to achieve.


The leg warmers and cassette tapes are long gone, but teaching group fitness is how this fitness professional and author started her health and fitness career more than 30 years ago — teaching choreographed aerobic dance to members of the local YWCA. The experience led to advance degrees in exercise physiology so that I could learn more and develop the appropriate platform to teach, and hopefully inspire, class participants and fellow instructors. It has been an awesome journey.


1. ACE Certified News Web site [Internet]. From Ancient Greece to Zumba: 50 events, people and trends that have shaped the history of fitness (Part 2). [cited 2014 June 11]. Available from: http://http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/2224/from-ancient-greece-to-zumba-50-events-people-and/.

2. ACSM Certification Web site [Internet]. ACSM Certified Group Exercise Instructor. [cited 2014 June 11]. Available from: http://certification.acsm.org/acsm-certified-group-exercise-instructor.

3. Club Industry Web site [Internet]. More group exercise programs are shifting to men. [cited 2014 June 12]. Available from: http://clubindustry.com/group-exercise/more-group-exercise-programs-are-shifting-men?cid=nl_tb&&sfvc4enews=42&cl=article_3_b.

4. Dolan S. Web site [Internet]. The benefits of group exercise. Am Coll Sports Med. 2012. [cited 2014 June 11]. Available from: http://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/articles/2012/01/20/benefits-of-group-exercise.


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