Find Fitness Bliss with NIA

NIA, a blend of yoga, martial arts, and dance, is one of the latest trends in mind-body fitness fusion.

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Tired of walking the walk to nowhere on the treadmill? Burned out on the repetitive pounding of aerobics? If the term "joyful workout" sounds like an oxymoron to you, it might be time to give NIA a try. NIA (pronounced NEE-ah) stands for neuromuscular integrative action, and it's one of the latest trends in mind-body fitness fusion. A unique blending of the fluidity and focus of Tai Chi and yoga, the grace and spontaneity of modern dance, and the energy and explosiveness of martial arts, NIA boosts both physical and emotional well-being, say enthusiasts around the country.

Best of all, NIA is just plain fun, says Sandy Bramlett, MED, a NIA instructor and director of Bodywise Studio in Atlanta. "It's pleasurable, healthy and never boring. I'm 56 and feel like I can do it for the rest of my life."

While it's just catching on nationwide, the workout actually dates back to 1983 -- the height of the aerobics boom, NIA co-founder Debbie Rosas tells WebMD. Although the Santa Rosa, Calif., studio she was running at the time was doing very well, she and NIA co-founder Carlos Rosas decided her classes needed a jumpstart.

"We started thinking, 'What are we doing to our bodies, to our students' bodies, with all this jumping up and down?'" she says. "Aerobics was too myopic, too limiting, cutting out a large amount of the population that needed to be moving. We wanted to address the whole body and mind."

And so NIA (which originally stood for non-impact aerobics) was born. Classes, which typically last an hour, are designed for all ages and fitness levels, says Bramlett, who has students ranging in age from 20-something to 88.

Even as they await published studies about NIA's effects on health, exercise physiologists and doctors praise the trendy workout for getting more people into some kind of fitness regimen.

"Anytime you get people moving in something they enjoy, you'll start to see health benefits," Richard Cotton, MA, exercise physiologist based in San Diego, Calif., tells WebMD.

"Too many Americans are still not exercising," says Cotton, who edits publications for the American Council on Exercise. "While NIA is more like Tai Chi than traditional aerobics, it certainly brings about changes in the body that enhance one's health. And it's a whole lot better than sitting around on the couch all day."

William O. Roberts, MD, vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine, agrees.

Roberts, who acknowledges he had to read up on the still relatively obscure NIA before speaking with WebMD, says, "Anything that keeps people moving is great. So if NIA is what gets them up and going, that's fantastic."

There's no doubt the workout improves strength and flexibility, adds Roberts, a family practitioner in private practice in White Bear Lake, Minn. "How much your heart rate gets going will dictate your cardiovascular benefit," he says.

So just what makes up a NIA workout?

The first step: Kick your shoes off, Bramlett says. Then, as soft music plays, the instructor leads the class in deep-breathing exercises, designed to help students relax while meditating on the connection between their bare feet and the earth.

"We warm up our joints and muscles and get the energy flowing in preparation for doing more, working in space to increase range of motion, shifting weight, stimulating our body with movement so that our breathing increases, helping us to strengthen our heart and lungs," Bramlett says.

As the tempo livens, students start to shake, shimmy, and spin. Some rock and roll, others clap. As the freestyle dance continues, some burst into spontaneous song. Tae kwon do-style kicks and punches let off steam while boosting the heart rate.


"It teaches us to move our joints the way they want to be moved, to use our bodies they way they are designed to be used."

While NIA teachers shun the drill-like orders of aerobics instructors, they gently lead the class in visualization and vocalization techniques, Rosas says. For example, students may be asked to shout "yes!" while lifting their arms to the sky, a means of releasing pent-up emotions.

"The more connected your body is to feelings, the more power, strength and grace you have, and the more stress you are able to release," Bramlett explains.

Rosas is careful to pay attention to the physical as well: For example, if she sees a student always lifting his arms with the palms facing down, she will instruct him to turn his palms up to "open up the shoulder joints.

"The healing component of NIA comes from using the body the way it was meant to be used," she explains.