In 1983, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) set out to address the needs of an enthusiastic, emergent profession of fitness instructors. So new and unproven, yet they were several steps ahead of a growing body of research for group exercise. AFAA gathered the best and the brightest among exercise physiologists, cardiologists, physical educators, sports medicine experts, physical therapists, and fitness professionals to compile the first-ever exercise standards and guidelines for group exercise instructors so they could deliver safe and effective classes for their participants and themselves.
On the heels of developing AFAA’s Basic Exercise Standards and Guidelines, AFAA published its first textbook in 1985, offering a definition of fitness that focused on cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility. That definition has significantly broadened since those first offerings, keeping pace with research in healthy aging, multicultural interests, and the exponential growth and popularity of the fitness movement worldwide. Today, the definition of fitness includes the greater attributes of an active and fit body and a positive mind and spirit. In addition to the basic trio of endurance, strength, and flexibility, fitness training also encompasses agility, power, speed, balance, and mind/body wholeness.
Most importantly, fitness instruction has earned a seat at the preventive health table, recognized as one of the best “medicines” available. AFAA certified fitness professionals have forged alliances within the health care system, and function in rehabilitation settings and hospital-based wellness programs. When working in rehabilitation or hospital-based environments, fitness professionals are supervised by licensed medical personnel and generally work with clinically stable individuals helping them reduce risk factors.
Many clinical settings contract with certified fitness professionals to teach modified classes for people living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and stroke. In these cases, fitness professionals follow the lead of licensed physical therapists or advanced degreed exercise physiologists working with physicians and nurses.
Public and private elementary and secondary schools have also benefitted from contracted and volunteer hours donated by fitness professionals. In an age of severe budget cuts, some schools have lost their physical education specialists, and local fitness professionals have filled in the gaps with age-appropriate cardio or strength training programs. They serve critical roles supplementing physical education in schools, and providing stress reduction, conditioning, and ergonomic advice in corporate wellness programs. More than ever, fitness is viewed as an essential component for overall physical and psychoemotional wellness.
Explosive Growth of a Profession
To appreciate just how far fitness has come in the past decade or so, it helps to bring the historical view into focus. In the early 1980s, fitness professionals were called “aerobic instructors,” and teaching classes was often viewed as a “part-time hobby” to earn a little extra money and stay in shape-not a real profession. Not anymore. Fitness professionals are now recognized as providing one of the most effective services to enhance health, reduce risk for chronic disease, maintain muscle mass and bone density, and prevent premature aging as well as a host of additional physical, emotional, and psychological benefits.
At its onset in 1983, AFAA was devoted to the safe and effective instruction of aerobic classes, and that generally meant whatever it took to keep a conventional dance exercise class injury-free and enjoyable. Today, AFAA offers eight certifications, eight specialty trainings, and approximately 4,000 workshops per year. The AFAA certified group exercise instructor is joined by an entire career ladder of professionals, including personal fitness trainers, exercise specialists, certified consultants, and AFAA Fitness Practitioners (AFP). AFAA certified professionals interface with physicians, health clinics, managed care providers, and corporate health networks to assure clients receive a seamless program of lifestyle management.
Group exercise as a fitness activity has now been in existence for over 25 years, evolving into a number of truly remarkable forms. Today, fitness workouts encompass everything from aqua to interval, step to pump, seated to slide, and yoga to Pilates. While the definition of fitness reaches out to broader horizons, instructors scramble for new research and emerging guidelines in order to maintain a vision of teaching the most effective and exciting class possible.
As a fitness professional, you will encounter both the theoretical foundation from which they draw and the innovative practices that spring forth. You will even have a chance to put into action specific examples of those practices, which are provided throughout the article.
Capturing the Trends
By far, the number one concern is that over two-thirds of Americans are considered over-weight, and almost 70% of the population is not engaging in regular, moderate, or even light physical activity, according to the American Heart Association. This trend in unhealthy weight gain has been chronicled in both post-industrial and developing countries worldwide, as a result of the overconsumption of processed, calorie-dense foods and inadequate physical activity. The human and economic costs from physical inactivity and unhealthy diets are staggering.
As medical experts try to reverse the nation’s climbing obesity rates, they have looked at potential causes, such as overeating, fat metabolism, dietary fats, and lifestyle change. Very little has made a difference for people who are unable to keep the weight off for the long term. Now, a new report in Obesity Research shows that exercise is the key factor in weight loss regimens because it can lead to an increased expenditure of energy. That in itself is nothing new. However, what is new is the fact that physical activity can also inhibit food intake in overweight people. Plus, it seems to be the critical factor in maintaining a desirable weight.
Physical activity, more so than weight loss, also reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. This same report examined the decline in the amount of non-exercise energy expended for chores, moving about, work, as well as transporting kids, friends, and individuals. These hidden numbers-insidious little reductions accumulated here and there are a major culprit in the fattening of America over the last decade.
Finally, decreasing the fat stores in obese people has been exasperatingly difficult for them when they have tried to follow exercise routines that suggest a moderately paced walk of 30 minutes once a day. Now, a new report from the Institute of Medicine suggests that for the obese to truly lose and maintain weight loss, exercise duration should stretch to 2 hours or more. It’s up to fitness instructors to know how to do that safely. Another new report in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise confirms what researcher Ralph Paffenbarger, Jr., PhD. discovered with his 20-year study on over 16,000 Harvard University alumnae. A growing body of evidence supports the theory that moderate physical activity (e.g., gardening, bowling, housework, yard chores) not only reduces the risk of disease and extends the lifespan, it can help the “never-exercised” cross over the line for the first time.
How can fitness professionals counter this troubling trend toward obesity?
First, keeping up to date with latest research will help fitness professionals approach clients who struggle with extra pounds in a more compassionate and realistic manner. Fitness professionals need to know that weight loss is a multifaceted challenge, and that efforts to reduce and maintain fat loss through exercise alone have only been modestly successful. The latest guidelines from both the American Dietetic Association and the American Society for Nutrition indicate that the key for shedding fat and maintaining its loss is both a modest reduction in caloric intake and an increase in physical activity.
Another way fitness professionals can help stem the rising tide of obesity is to promote activity in innovative ways. Talk about the positive benefits of exercise that flow into other aspects of one’s life: (a) more confidence in relationships, (b) renewed interest in play and leisure, and (c) greater productivity at work. Keep programs fresh and exciting. It’s crucial to employ the latest in motivational techniques. But most of all, knowing that the exercises and modalities you’re teaching are the most effective means for accomplishing your clients’ goals will really pay off. You need to know how to move larger bodies safely and strategically with the best warm-up techniques, and the most effective and well-targeted fat-burning choreography and strength-training styles.
In addition, fitness professionals can play an active role outside the studio.
Fitness professionals can serve as advocates for community strategies to broaden safe walking and cycling paths; restore comprehensive physical education to primary and secondary education; and be a visible, proactive presence in healthy cities campaigns and health fairs. New research indicates that the built environment can either promote or hinder physical activity in communities. Are there walkways and well-lighted recreation areas, courts, playgrounds, and bike paths in your community? If not, you can be a community advocate working toward the establishment of policies that provide safe and enjoyable access to residents. Fitness is usually not achieved in a studio alone. It requires a 360° commitment to how we engage with our physical environment every day.
Fitness professionals constantly look for applications to draw from exercise science for the older client as well as the frail elderly. New thinking is presented on how this population can benefit from bone and muscle strengthening classes, programs for improving balance and flexibility, modified yoga, and rhythmic dance for low-impact aerobic conditioning. New research on exercise for seniors is among the most encouraging in our field. Senior-supportive exercise programs not only help prevent falls, ward off muscle loss and osteoporosis, build upper body strength for activities of daily living, and slow down the effects of aging, but they have been shown to also enhance memory, concentration, and cognitive abilities.
Attention to body shaping and contouring is another trend that is most visible in the high-volume markets of major cities. That is where floor work and specialized equipment classes, such as Pilates, are making waves. Quality of movement is being emphasized together with the elongation and strengthening of muscles. What was once a private session for ballerinas has now grown to accommodate millions who are seeking formerly esoteric concepts, such as core conditioning, stabilization, and micro-movements.
At the same time, the demand is up for high-powered workouts that take people to the top of their potential. Cardio kickboxing and indoor cycling classes are leading the charts in terms of group calorie burn, and AFAA is right there, often a step ahead of the game, supplying instruction, guidelines, and new certifications for each of the emerging trends.
It is obvious that the contemporary fitness professional needs to remain up-to-date in research, trends, and consumer interest.
Expanding Needs of the Public
Today, most people live increasingly hectic and stressful lifestyles with overburdened schedules and a shrinking amount of recreational time. In such circumstances, fitness is more important than ever, and its definition has shifted to include time for pleasurable activities as well as physical training for endurance, strength, and flexibility. As a result, people have come to expect more from their workouts than a fast-paced drill for their hearts. They want their fitness professional to be knowledgeable in the latest best practices to reduce the deleterious effects of stress, and to follow guidelines supported by valid research and high quality standards.
Fitness professionals realize their clients need to both unravel knotted muscles and have a good workout in order to achieve optimal health benefits. This new attention to the total well-being of clients has blossomed into the creation of programs focusing on mind-body movement, yoga, and creative stretch, as well as basic starter programs for various segments of the population (e.g., seniors, youth, cardiac patients, the overweight and obese, and those who are pregnant, arthritic, or diabetic).
Risk Reduction for Chronic Disease
Fitness is now recognized as a fundamental component for overall health and longevity. Specifically, exercise is proving to be the number one “action” of choice by some medical researchers who have found that exercise may have beneficial effects on a variety of actual or potential disease processes, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. The research accumulated in the last 5 years is simply overwhelming. Some of the latest findings related to physical activity include changes in chronic inflammatory condition, which lay the groundwork for the development of chronic diseases. These include metabolic disorders such as hyperglycemic and hyperlipidemic conditions, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, stroke, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and osteoporosis. While the implementation of such measures to treat these conditions lies with licensed health care providers, the research findings represent exciting news for fitness professionals and their clients.
Responding to Social Forces
Finding ways to exercise “more, better, faster” is only part of the fitness picture. The real revolution within the fitness world over the past few years has been directed at ways in which fitness professionals sought the new recruit, the under-served, the dropouts, the non-converted. In the early days, aerobic dance definitely had its fans in a white, middle-class demographic, but four social factors have influenced how aerobics is practiced today.
First of all, a multicultural dynamic is alive and well in much of the world, especially in the United States. This new multiculturalism has energized the cardio (aerobic) class with fresh, downbeat sounds and rhythms of African dance, Salsa, hip-hop, funk, Caribbean movement, and Eastern oriented martial arts. With these exciting additions, classes are popular and well attended again in the major cities.
Secondly, more people are taking advantage of the skills of personal fitness trainers. No longer viewed as the exclusive territory of the elite or the wealthy, obtaining the services of a personal fitness trainer is a life-enhancing, good sense move for millions. Some innovative trainers have created the small group instruction model, making their services more affordable, or found clubs with which they could partner to provide a mutually beneficial service. Increasing their knowledge base for special health concerns is of paramount importance for trainers working one-on-one with people at midlife. This health-conscious part of the population often suffers from an old ski injury, runner’s knees, a back disability, or a nagging sports injury.
Thirdly, the abundance of new research on the benefits of muscle strengthening for premenopausal women has alerted the professional group exercise instructor to provide a variety of excellent conditioning choices, such as step-plus-weights, tubing classes, and bands-plus-aerobics. Retaining lean muscle is not only great for body shaping, but it has taken a top standing in the struggle to ward off increasing weight gain. Strength training is being embraced by everyone from adolescents to the senior population, making a demand for personal fitness trainers and well-informed group exercise instructors alike.
Lastly, the benefits of cross-training have been well documented in the past few years. Not only does it provide a much-needed motivational diversion, cross-training allows the neurological and musculoskeletal systems to be challenged in new ways. The rich bounty of classes and guidelines presented in are designed to present a world of new ideas to interested readers.
From toddlers to seniors, from the overweight beginner to the wheelchair user-everyone deserves the right to wear a “fit” label, and be supported and taught with the latest, safest information. It requires a real shift in thinking to realize it is not that we have a host of unfit people out there-it is just that we have not thought of the right fitness program to spark their imaginations and get their pulses racing. Every time we expand our definition of fitness, we get to flex our creativity and commitment within a wonderful profession.
Fitness professionals should make it a priority to teach people to move like their lives depend on it.