Is there a purpose to each section of a fitness class?
The short, simple answer is yes.
Every activity in a properly-designed fitness class (taught by a certified fitness instructor 1) has a purpose. No matter what is done, you should be able to ask the instructor: “What’s this for? Why are we doing this?” And the instructor should be able to answer your question.
Each section of the class — warm-up, cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility — does have a purpose. They should follow in a logical order and none should be omitted. They should also be appropriate for the age and health of the participants involved. 2
An instructor cannot know your personal health issues. Therefore, before you take an exercise class you need to know what activities will be involved and the purposes of each activity. In addition, you have to know if (1) it is suitable for you and your health issues, and (2) it provides you with the exercises that you need. If possible, you should try to talk to the instructor before you go to the class.
Once involved in a regular fitness class, it’s not uncommon to see participants take responsibility for setting their own fitness and health goals through the knowledge which they gain in class.
What are the benefits of cardio?
While doing even mild cardio exercise, the body demands more oxygen; thus, we increase the volume of blood being pumped by the heart (known as cardiac output) and the transportation of oxygen to our cells (known as respiration). Our body’s ability to transport oxygen from the lungs to the body tissues also increases. Getting more oxygen from our toes to our brain is nothing but good news.
The benefits to cardiovascular exercise are enormous. Here's a short list of some of them:
- our heart gets healthier and the muscle may increase in size;
- our resting heart rate may decrease;
- breathing capacity increases;
- the ability of the body to transport and utilize oxygen increases;
- endorphins are released into the blood stream, providing a natural high feeling and increasing energy and vigour;
- tension and anxiety are lessened;
- more oxygen gets to the brain;
- one obtains a sense of achievement and well-being.
And just how much cardio do we have to do? And for how long? And how fast? More and more research is concluding that mild exercise for a 10-15 minute period is all that is necessary. You do not have to do heart-pounding, hour-long exercise to reap the benefits!
If you find yourself in a class that does only cardiovascular exercise and very little of warm-up, strength training, and cool-down, you are not getting all the benefits of exercise.
In 2005, after conducting a clinical trial which evaluated the effects of exercise amount and intensity on sedentary overweight men, the researchers concluded: “The amount of exercise may be more important than intensity to improve cardiovascular health. This finding...should be encouraging news for those who mistakenly believe only intense exercise can improve health.” 3
What other benefits are gained from an exercise class?
All cardio and no strength training will not produce the results you're looking for. All strength training and no cardio — same results (or lack thereof). You don't have to get both cardio and strength training in one class, but if you get one and not the other, then you need to do another activity. For instance, you could take a strength training class and take a 10,000-step walk every day.
To move our body, we must use our muscles. Continuous movement improves the muscles’ aerobic capacity, their overall stamina, and their resistance to fatigue.
There should be four distinct sections in a well-planned fitness class:
- a warm-up to prepare muscles for heavier work (See also Why Warm-Up?);
- a cardiorespiratory section where heart rates go up;
- a strength training section for isolation of individual muscle toning, as well as some balance training (See also Why Lift Weights?); and,
- a final period of stretch, flexibility and relaxation, bringing the heart rate down and cooling down the body. 4
What about exercise for the older adult?
As more older adults seek fitness classes, it’s important that the instruction is geared to their age group.
Looking at any group which includes people of the same age is difficult, however, because labelling a person “older adult” does not indicate what their fitness level is. The older adult may have many anomalies; according to Blocker (1992), four out of ten adults over 65 have a chronic disorder that may result in a functional limitation.
Instead of going by chronological age, an assessment of what the person can do is far more important. Each participant needs to rely on their own perception of what is a prudent level of exercise for them and, if the participant has control over their own exercise regime, there is a stronger likelihood that they will keep coming back.
But should I exercise if I'm not healthy?
Good question! Always talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise regime.
If you suffer from coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, adult onset diabetes, or arthritis, exercise may very well help you to manage the condition. In these areas particularly, the research is rich in evidence. Whatever condition you may suffer from, you should talk to your doctor and see what he/she suggests. A fitness class might be your best prescription.
Appreciate Good Instruction and Look for the Right Class
Everyone appreciates and respects the professionalism of their instructor. Participants want their instructor to be knowledgeable — familiar with anatomy, exercise injuries, and the efficacy of each exercise, as well as a general understanding of disease and disability.
You need to ask the instructor what their training is, especially if you are an older adult. Do not assume that they have had training in working with older adults. 5
The basic principles of a successful fitness class apply to any age: well-planned, organized, starting and ending on time, clear instructions, a variety of activities, and a pleasant physical environment.
There are also special classes for older adults who have disabilities or special conditions. These classes are sometimes done while sitting in a chair, but don’t let that fool you — you will get your exercise. This type of class is only limited in cardio, but all other elements of a typical fitness class remain.
Most people don’t want loud, throbbing music, and they want an aerobic section that is between 120 and 130 beats per minute — enough for a workout but not one that will exhaust them. They appreciate clear instructions and explanations for exercises. Dependability is also important: meeting at the same time week after week with an instructor who is rarely absent and knows their clients well.
Once a class is chosen, be a smart consumer
When you walk into fitness class, you trust that your fitness instructor knows what’s best for you, what’s safe and what isn’t safe. But your fitness instructor doesn’t know your unique health situation, or how you are feeling that particular day, so you have some responsibility to be aware of what works and doesn’t work for you.
Here are some general safety guidelines that you should be alert to in every single class you attend:
- Obtain medical clearance before exercising.
- Avoid comparisons. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or cannot do what others are doing.
- Modify methods and do not strain. Don’t do all the steps, or use lower weights if necessary. Reduce intensity, duration, or frequency levels that are too great. Use slow, gradual movements.
- Never hold your breath.
- Arrive on time: don’t miss the warm-up.
- Do not hyperflex (overbend) or hyperextend (over-stretch) the joints.
- Protect your neck and back: Always provide optimal manual support for the back. Do not move the neck quickly.
- Stay for the stretching at the end; try not to leave early.
There are several links within this article. All of those are repeated here, but a few others are also listed. Take a look at the titles and see if any of them might be of interest to you:
- Fitness Instruction for the Older Adult: BCRPA Guidelines
- Fitness Instructors: What they Know and What they Don't Know
- Fitness Principles
- Do Not Be Late, Do Not Leave Early: All parts of the Fitness Class have a Purpose
- Why Warm-Up?
- Why Lift Weights?
- Motivation: How do we stay involved in physical activities?
- Music and Fitness Class: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Over-Training: How do you know when you're doing too much?
- Pain During Exercise: Should it hurt when I exercise?
- Book Review: Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?
- Book Review: Body by Science
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
Fitness instructors trained by the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association can be certified group fitness instructors, and they may have specialties. Those with third-age training are trained specifically to assist their participants in exercising safely and wisely for their age and health conditions. ↩︎