You remember. The crush to enter the room and secure a spot. The star instructor in a thong, poised to put on a performance. The student enthralled by her own reflection in the mirror. The choreographed moves that made you feel like a beautiful dancer if you could remember them, a complete klutz if you couldn’t. The sweat, the shouts (wooo!), the deafening music, the highs and the lows of it.
True, dancy fitness classes are still offered in many clubs, and step, that more athletic cousin, continues to pack them in. But the signs of aerobics, demise can’t be denied. Take the schedule changes at Jamnastics Fitness Center, a Chicago gym. Six years ago the club offered 40 aerobics classes per week out of a total of 60 classes; now only 15 out of 90 classes are aerobics. The very term has become so passe that Nike no longer uses it in its press releases, opting for the phrases total-body conditioning and group exercise instead.
For many of us, aerobics provided an entree to the previously foreign world of the gym. We came, we saw, we jumped, we kicked, we got fit and, ultimately, bored–and perhaps a little annoyed. “Aerobics was started with the best of intentions: to get people moving. But then it took a turn for the worse,” says Alix Redmonde, a fitness instructor who teaches at several New York City clubs. “Aerobics maniacs made it a competition and pushed everyone else out of the room. And many of the instructors were ex-dancers who weren’t knowledgeable about fitness.” Martin Henry, owner of the West Hollywood exercise studio that bears his name, believes the problem was that aerobics classes weren’t effective enough. “Sometimes the choreography was difficult to follow, and people weren’t really getting good results.”
By most accounts, the average gymgoer’s needs have changed since the mid- to late ’80s, when aerobics was at its peak. “Time is at a big, big premium, so people want their workouts to be intensive and efficient,” says Keith Irace, general manager of Jamnastics. “Today traditional aerobics is perceived as almost soft.” Carol Espel, who’s program director of The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, a new Manhattan fitness complex, agrees. “People want their workouts to be fun but also effective and functional,” she says. “They don’t want to just flail their arms and jump around to no purpose.”
Not that aerobics doesn’t have its benefits. It burns a fair number of calories, builds cardiovascular endurance and provides relief from stress. But these days, for many that isn’t enough. According to Molly Fox, who has been on the scene for close to 15 years (she’s now director of group fitness at the Equinox Clubs in New York City), exercisers want not just fitness perks but new challenges as well. “Boxing is a big deal right now because it requires incredible focus and skill,” she reports. “That’s not something you really need in aerobics.”
Another change is that workouts aren’t necessarily an end in themselves anymore. The latest buzzword among the fitness cognoscenti is sports training, which suggests that more people are using what they do in the gym to facilitate what they do outside of it. “I’m amazed,” says Irace, “by the number of people who want to run a race or do a triathlon.”
Even if they’re not interested in sports, many exercisers are clearly convinced that athletic training is the way to achieve superfitness. The newest, hottest class at Martin Henry’s, for instance, is HEAT (short for high-energy aerobic training), a combined treadmill and weight-training workout. Redmonde’s take on the athletic theme is ASSETS (aerobic super-set exercise training system), a class in which she borrows moves from football, volleyball, skating, boxing, skiing and the martial arts. At many gyms around the country the latest sensation is Spinning, a stationary-cycling workout designed to mimic real backroads riding.
Perhaps what’s most notable about the decline of aerobics is that few people are replacing it with just one comparable cardiovascular workout. Even those remaining diehards who used to aerobicize exclusively are now crosstraining. “What we hear in focus groups and at clubs is that as women become fit, they want to do lots of other things,” says Stacey Sheridan, marketing manager of women’s sports and fitness at Reebok. “It helps keep them motivated.” The company’s answer to the emerging trend: Versa Training, a program that helps women choose from a range of options–from yoga to weight training to step–as a way of reaching their fitness goals.
Aerobics, of course, is still on the Versa Training list of options. And with ethnic incarnations like salsa, hiphop and world beat to revitalize it, it will probably never go completely out of style. “There will always be people who like to move to music,a says Kathie Davis, who’s the executive director of IDEA, the international association of fitness professionals. “Group fitness is here to stay.” Good. But luckily, there now are group-fitness choices for us aerobics dummies who never got the hang of those grapevine steps and cha-cha-chas.