This post was written by Nigel Champion, Executive Director of Australian Fitness Network.
Until the late sixties, the idea of exercising for good health and wellbeing was virtually non-existent. Then, former US Navy doctor, Kenneth Cooper, wrote a global bestseller in which he coined the term ‘aerobics’ and explained that the more the human body moves, the better it performs. This was the catalyst for the jogging craze that commenced in the early seventies.
At this time, fitness clubs focused on traditional strength training and body building, which created a very intimidating environment for women to train in. Then, in the mid-seventies, along came a workout format that ticked all the boxes. It was cardiovascular, it had strength and flexibility components, it was performed to popular music – and most importantly it was fun. This format took on Cooper’s term ‘aerobics’ and with the release in 1982 of ‘Jane Fonda’s Workout’ videos it became a worldwide fitness phenomenon.
In Australia, aerobic classes were held in church and community halls, Surf Life Saving Clubs, and, eventually, fitness clubs. Most of the early aerobics instructors came from dance backgrounds, and as such had little training in human movement. The result was a high incidence of injuries, including shin splints, back problems and vocal cord damage. Enter Australian Fitness Network to provide the training, music, resources, continuing education and conventions to equip thousands of instructors with the skills to deliver safe and effective classes.
By the mid-nineties aerobics saw a steep decline in class numbers. The reason was simple: instructors were teaching to the dedicated front row who wanted ever more complex moves, leaving newcomers and the less co-ordinated floundering at the back. In the late nineties, Network launched a class that used a barbell in a rigid pre-choreographed format: the original Body Pump class. This re-ignited the ‘aerobic room’ and kick-started the incredible global success of Les Mills International.
In the early 2000’s the term ‘aerobics’ was losing its appeal and was replaced by ‘group exercise’, which encompassed everything from HiLo, step and freestyle, to pre-choreographed, cycle and boxing. Around 2005, the Latin American inspired Zumba movement took hold. This was quite different to the Les Mills offering, as the business model was based on the instructor, rather than the club, buying a license. It proved a huge global success, with many Zumba instructors going back to where it all started – teaching classes in community halls.
So, where’s group fitness today? Freestyle and prechoreographed classes still form the core of the timetable, but small group training formats such as functional training, boxing, Pilates, and HIIT are gaining popularity. The introduction of virtual classes, immersive workouts and home video streaming are also getting some traction. But no matter how good the technology is, aerobics/group exercise will be around for many years to come, as people will still want to exercise with others in a fun and supportive environment, just as many discovered they did 30 years ago.