Feature Archive

No More Hamster Wheel

Group classes are adding excitement to cardio machines

WebMD Feature

Look up "treadmill" in Roget's Thesaurus and you'll find a predictable list of terms: drudgery, tedium, and monotony. So it's surprising that classes using treadmills are the latest fitness rage. Classes featuring stairclimbers, rowers, and other cardiovascular machines are also part of the trend, which has generated unprecedented enthusiasm for equipment long considered to be solitary and mind numbing.

Nobody's Left in the Dust

"People get really bored on machines, but group classes make the time fly by and you get a more intense workout," says San Jose, Calif., walking expert Therese Iknoian, codeveloper of Trekking, a group exercise program promoted by the treadmill manufacturer Star Track. "You get the benefit of group energy and an instructor who will challenge you, but at the same time, there are no complicated dance steps to learn." That's why, instructors say, the classes seem to be drawing participants who shy away from step aerobics and other choreographed forms of exercise.

The latest fitness machine classes are an offshoot of the wildly popular indoor cycling classes called Spinning, which are typically set to high-energy music and involve both slow-paced and high-intensity intervals. One key benefit, instructors and students say, is that beginners don't feel intimidated. Exercisers of all fitness levels can work out together, in a spirit of camaraderie; a top-notch marathoner or rower can't race away from the pack.

Many participants say they work out longer and harder during a group class than they would using the same machine on their own. "Before these classes, I'd get bored after about 20 minutes on the treadmill and quit," says Todd Quartararo, spokesperson for The Sports Club, located in Irvine, Calif., which offers both treadmill and stairclimber classes. "But now I don't want to be the one who quits in the middle of the class."

Unlike Spinning or traditional aerobics classes, most of the new indoor machine classes are taught in a club's main cardiovascular room, with the machines grouped in rows or a semicircle. Participants typically listen to the music and instructions via headsets so that the classes don't disturb the rest of the gym's members.

A Machine for Every Body

Here's a rundown of some of the latest fitness machine classes.

  • Boathouse. These group rowing classes were developed by Concept II, the leading manufacturer of rowing machines. Unlike the developers of Spinning, Trekking, and other programs, Concept II doesn't require clubs to pay a franchise fee or to follow a specific format. So Boathouse classes vary greatly. They're "designed to take a serious group of athletes to the next level," says Bill Patton, marketing director for Concept II. For seniors, some clubs offer low-intensity Boathouse classes, which can strengthen the back and improve flexibility.
  • Stomp. This new 25-minute workout was developed by stairclimber manufacturer Stairmaster. Rather than monotonously stepping up and down at the same level, you change speeds, vary the depth of your step, and even emphasize one leg at a time. You also do the "stomp," a maneuver that involves lifting both legs in the air simultaneously and literally stomping on the machine. Stomp master trainer Tony Lattimore swears that this cannot break the stairclimber. "Unless you're some 300-pound football player doing it wrong, you can't hurt the machine," Lattimore says.
  • Trekking. It's virtually impossible to get bored during one of these 30-minute treadmill classes. "We've added the intensity of hill training and speedplay, [so] people are surprised that 30 minutes has gone by," says program co-developer Therese Iknoian. Trekking instructors place a big emphasis on techniques for preventing injuries. They also urge class members to go at their own pace, rather than compete with the trekkers next to them. "I've taught obese people right next to very fit runners," Iknoian says.
  • Precor Fit. The latest entry into the group machine class market, Precor Fit, will be launched in April 2000. Classes are taught on the popular Precor elliptical trainer; you pedal your feet in an oval motion while standing upright. There will be two versions of the class, 30 minutes and 50 minutes, and classes will be taught only by trainers certified by the American Council on Exercise. "The goal isn't to kick your butt in 45 minutes," says program developer Isabel Lorca, a Los Angeles fitness trainer. "We want to educate people about the proper technique and make them conscious of what's going on with their bodies so that exercise isn't mindless."

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