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Setting calisthenics to music has created a new, more appealing form of exercise: aerobics. Aerobics caught on because it has the appeal of dance, offers the companionship of a group, and costs very little, as long as you don't buy the ultrafashionable exercise outfits and shoes.

      Calisthenics alone does not allow you to achieve your target heart rate for a long enough time to provide conditioning. By combining calisthenics with repetitive dance routines, you can achieve your target heart rate and maintain it.

      Aerobics is now one of the most popular forms of exercise. Approximately 27 million women and men are enrolled in aerobics classes, and that doesn't include the countless individuals who exercise at home to aerobics videotapes.

      But the growing popularity of aerobics has led to problems. Although the aerobics originators were trained in exercise physiology and kinesiology (the study of body motion), the movie and television personalities who sell millions of videotapes and books for home use have had no such trainingand neither have many of the aerobics instructors in health clubs. As a result, many aerobicizers do too much, too fast, too soon, and they injure themselves.

      The jumping and bouncing routines of high-impact aerobics on a hard gym floor have also led to multiple injuries, mostly to the lower body. Original aerobic shoe designs are partly to blame. Shoe manufacturers saw a huge market in aerobic shoes and, unfortunately, designed the shoes more with fashion sense than with function in mind.

      These problems have led to so many injuries that, at one time, aerobics instructors replaced gymnasts as the athletes with the highest incidence of sports injuries. More than 75 percent of aerobics instructors have sustained at least one injury while teaching aerobics.


There is a strong association between high-impact aerobics and damage to the structures of the inner ear. Jarring the skeleton transmits vibrations all the way up to the skull and the tiny bones of the inner ear. This may disturb the inner ear's delicate, finely tuned balance mechanism, resulting in dizziness and hearing loss in some people who are heavy aerobicizers.

      It's still unclear whether the ear damage sustained from hours of vigorous jumping is permanent or will clear up if activity is curtailed. The exercise makes most aerobicizers feel so much better emotionally that they seem unwilling to give it up, even if it does affect their hearing and balance.


The most common aerobics injury is a pulled or strained muscle. Almost any muscle in the body can become injured during aerobics, but most injuries occur in the legs, back, and stomach. These usually result from using muscles that have never been used before or going further with a muscle than ever before. The jumping, twisting, and turning of aerobics causes a sudden, violent stretch of the muscle. I see these muscle injuries most commonly in beginners who get "into" the music and get carried awayand then have to be carried away, literally.

      A pulled muscle can take a few days to a few weeks to heal, depending on how badly you pulled it and how quickly you treat it. You must stretch the muscle as it heals so that you won't reinjure it when you resume aerobics.

      The most severe injuries from aerobics occur in the lower back. If your back continues to hurt after being treated for a muscle pull, see a qualified health professional. You may have a disc problem or ligament damage from the violent, twisting motion of aerobics.


The excessive rotation of an abnormal foot strike against the floor can be transferred up into the thigh and hip. Pronation causes the thigh and hip as well as the foot to roll to the inside. This constant stress and twisting can cause the thigh and hip bones to crack, which is known as a stress fracture.


A form of runner's knee (chondromalacia patella) is a very common cause of knee pain during aerobics. Aerobics aggravates this condition by introducing movements that put weight on the leg with the knee bent more than 30º. These movements are still commonly included even in lowimpact aerobics routines.


Pain in the outer side of the knee or over the point of the hip is due to iliotibial band syndrome. Aerobics activities can cause this band, which extends from the rim of the pelvis to below the knee, to overdevelop, tighten down, and rub on the point of the hip or the outer projection of the knee. Either of these areas can then become sore.


When high-impact aerobics were in vogue, the injury commonly referred to as shin splints, and the tibial stress syndrome and tibial stress fracture that can accompany it, was a frequent problem due to the impact of the foot on the floor. The impact of pounding the floor improperly is transferred up the leg into the shin, causing pain. The advent of low-impact aerobics (where one foot stays on the floor at all times), step aerobics, more shock-absorbent floors, and better shoe design has reduced the number of shin injuries.

      To correct for shin pain, you need to change the mechanics of your foot as it hits the floor. This will ease the pain shooting up your leg. If you have a pronating foot, which rolls to the inside, you are likely to feel the stress in your tibia. If you have a supinating foot, which rolls to the outside, you will likely feel the pain in your fibula.


Stress fractures of the foot can result from the hard impact of the foot on the floor. This injury is characterized by sudden, severe pain during class that recurs afterward whenever you put weight on the foot. If the pain does not go away in a few days, have your foot x-rayed. You may also need a bone scan to help your doctor make the proper diagnosis.


One of the hottest types of aerobics is step aerobics. More than 4 million people have become step aerobicizers. Step, or bench, aerobics requires you to step on and off a bench using a variety of foot and leg movements. It offers a high cardiovascular workout with low body impact. Stepping represents the aerobic equivalent of a seven-mile run and the impact equivalent of a three-mile walk. Many step programs include hand weights, which help develop the arms and upper body.

      In a typical step aerobics class, you hop on and off a bench 8 to 12 inches high to the beat of music. To do your step training at home, you can use a simple adjustable bench, offering heights of 2 to 8 inches, or even stairs. Small, portable units you can carry around easily or store in the closet are available for about $50. Some come with a step aerobics workout on videotape for home use.

      Stair-steppers, such as StairMaster, rank as the most-used type of exercise equipment in health clubs. These machines are great for developing the calves, thighs, and buttocks and give you a good cardiovascular workout. The machine gives you a readout of how many calories you have expended; the equivalent number of floors you have climbed; and the equivalent number of miles you have walked, jogged, or run. You can buy a stair-stepper for home use for $200 to $2,000.

      You can use this machine to work various muscle groups. To tone buttock muscles, take higher steps. To work abdominal muscles, take shorter steps. If you put your feet forward, you take pressure off the calf muscles and shift it to the hips, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Stand facing away from the machine to work the lower-back muscles.

      When stair-stepping, make sure your knees stay over your toes. If you place your foot ahead of your knee and then lift up, you could strain your knee or hip. If you have a history of knee or hip problems, you should probably stay off stair-steppers and walk instead. If you begin to feel knee or hip pain from any kind of step aerobics, this form of exercise is not for you.

      Another caveat: Many people set resistance or time limits beyond their capabilities. To keep up with the machine, either they shorten their steps and cut the exercise's range of motion, or they support themselves by leaning on the machine. When you support one-quarter of your weight with your arms, you lose 30 percent of the machine's efficiency. So stand straight, use the handrails for balance only, and choose a workout level that does not force you to lean on the machine.


More and more aerobics instructors around the country are offering water workouts as a safe, energetic alternative to regular aerobics classes. Water (or aqua) aerobics are hard on the muscles but soft on the joints, and you can achieve a greater range of motion than on land.

      The natural buoyancy of water helps people with sports injuriesas well as pregnant women, older people, those who are overweight, and those who suffer from arthritisget a complete, safe workout. Children can also participate if they are tall enough to stand chest-deep in the water.

      Most water aerobics programs mix conditioning exercises with muscle-toning movements that involve jumping, twisting, punching, kicking, and running in the water. All of these exercises are performed in the shallow end of the pool.

      It's important to find a program that includes 20 minutes of continuous exercise to put you within your cardiovascular training range. The program should have a warmup of 5 to 10 minutes, a variety of water activities, and then a warm-down of 5 to 10 minutes. You won't be able to work out in the water for as long as you can on land, so start off slowly and stop when you get tired or develop sore muscles.

      In water your body weight is reduced to only 10 percent of what it is on land. So exercising in water is often more comfortable than exercising on land. A water temperature in the low 80s enables you to stay cool while working out, no matter how hot it is outside. You sweat, but you don't notice it. On the other hand, you have to be willing to exert yourself, and not just float, to get the full aerobic benefit.

      A typical water aerobics class will have you wear a special vest to increase your buoyancy and allow you to jog in the water. These flotation devices allow even those who can't swim to feel comfortable doing shallow-water routines. You should also wear shoes, either special aquatic footwear available in sporting goods stores or standard aerobic dance shoes.

      With the addition of special equipment, you can increase your resistance even more to build strength and increase flexibility. The faster you move your arms and legs, the greater the resistance and the better the workout. Water fins, hand and leg paddles, special lightweight armbands, and ankle boots can provide buoyancy and enhance the water's natural resistance. Some programs use balls, dumbbell-shaped floating weights, plastic bottles, boots, and gloves to increase water resistance. These devices help provide both an upper- and a lower-body workout.

      If you are interested in water aerobics, contact your local "Y" or health club with a swimming pool. Many private swim clubs and community pools now offer water aerobics classes. Water aerobics instructors should be experienced at teaching exercise classes and should have some training in basic first aid or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

How to Improve Your Workout

Invest in a good pair of aerobics or cross-training shoes to prevent impact injuries to your lower body. You need a shoe with good shock absorption in the heel, a wide toe, strong arch support, and a firm sole. The problem with most shoes is that they are too soft. A shoe may be comfortable, but if the shoe is too soft, the foot does what it wants to do instead of what it's supposed to do. Once you find a good quality shoe, then look for comfort. And once you find a well-fitting, comfortable shoe, don't change it because this year's shoe style has changed.

      Whenever possible, look for low-impact aerobics classes. Better yet, try water aerobics, which is the least jarring on your joints.

Preventing Aerobics Injuries

The large number of injuries to aerobics instructors prompted a revolutionary changeover to low-impact activities. Low-impact aerobics involves a lot of stepping, side-to-side and step-touch motions, and leg bending to shift body weight. Padded floors have replaced hard gym floors, and aerobics shoes have been designed to absorb more shock.

      To avoid being injured from aerobics, find a facility that offers various levels of aerobics classes and experienced instructors who can start you at the right level. Resist being moved up to a higher class if you are having difficulty. The mark of a seasoned instructor is knowing how hard to push. If you feel persistent pain in your muscles or joints, stop exercising and have the pain evaluated.

      Look for an instructor with training in teaching aerobics and certification by a reputable national organization such as the American Aerobic Association. Many aerobics instructors also have a college degree in physical education or exercise physiology.

      Avoid being overly competitive in class. Aerobics is a way of improving your health, not a competitive sport. You want to be in the best shape possible, but that doesn't mean you have to be in as good a shape as the person next to you.

An Individualized Aerobics Program

The basic problem of an aerobics class is that it is designed for a group. You have to adapt your workout to fit the type of class. And routines on videotape are even less forgiving; at least an instructor can give you a variation on a particular movement.

      If you decide to take up aerobics, or to change classes, make sure that the instructor takes the following factors into account:

  • Your age. This means your physical age as well as your chronological age. Most health clubs now offer classes for the elderly as well as for the young.

  • Your basic conditioning. There's no reason an older athlete in reasonably good shape shouldn't take a tough aerobics class. But don't try to push yourself beyond your limits. You can always rest and catch up with the rest of the class.

  • Your flexibility. Many young aerobics instructors have dance training and can do things with their bodies that most people can't. Again, stay within your limits.

  • Your strength. Some new aerobics classes strengthen and tone muscles as well as condition the heart. If your muscles are sore for several days after a class, consider dropping down a level.

  • Your body's own peculiarities. Let the instructor know if you have any orthopedic problems, such as recurrent lower back pain, or any biomechanical abnormalities, such as runner's knee.

      Know your target heart rate, and monitor your heart rate while you exercise to make sure you stay within that zone. In a mass aerobics class, no one will monitor your heart rate; you have to do it yourself. A good aerobics instructor will stop the class and let you monitor your heart rate. If you are aerobicizing at home, stop every five minutes to check your pulse and calculate your heart rate.

Aerobics Variety

If you're bored with your current aerobics class, look for one with a different twist or a different style of music. Some aerobics classes stress sports movements, combining push-ups, abdominal exercises, jumping drills, squat thrusts, dips on benches, and sprinting. Others use circuit workouts, providing muscle toning and strengthening along with cardiovascular work. You use a body ball, rubber bands, or a jump rope for 45 seconds each, alternating these exercises with aerobics movements.

      Several new devices for home aerobics are available, such as slick plastic floor pads for gliding side-to-side, a plastic sleeve filled partly with water, and a long metal bar covered with soft foam. These and other devices are available for $50 to $90, and some of them come with videotapes.

      Plyometrics is a form of low-impact aerobics in which you propel yourself upward with the force of high-impact aerobics but land softly. This involves a high-intensity, deep jump off a box. As soon as you hit the floor, you immediately spring upward again. This is similar to a basketball jump, but slower and more controlled.

      Jazzercise® blends jazz dance choreography with aerobics, muscle toning, and stretching exercises. The music in Jazzercise classes runs the gamut from Broadway show tunes, to country and western, to jazz and soul music. The fluid movements do not shock the body.

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