Adding Culture to Exercise

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Hip new exercise classes incorporate ethnic themes.

WebMD Feature It's Friday night and the sound of Latin salsa is pulsating from a studio on Manhattan's Lower West Side. But the people inside aren't swaying to the music; they're working out on stationary bicycles: "indoor cycling." Instructor Giovanni Ortiz urges his class on, shouting "Muevetelo! Move it!" with a swivel of his hips.

As the country's population continues to diversify, so too does the demographic of those who teach workout classes. Bringing their cultures to the job, Ortiz and other instructors are reinventing the fitness craze popularized by Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons 20 years ago.

Ortiz first taught indoor cycling using meditative music filled with wind-like sounds and eerie flutes. But he quickly discovered the power of Latin music. "You need enthusiasm to do [indoor cycling]," he says. "Latin music gets to the heart of the matter. It gets into your soul."

Some instructors say they develop new classes from a desire for a change of pace. Others want to distinguish themselves in the booming fitness market.

"The easiest way to be different is to go back to your roots," explains Ken Alan, spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. "I think we're going to be seeing more and more of these kinds of programs in the future."

Going International

At Crunch Fitness Center in Chicago, aerobic exercising has been taken to a new level. Live drummers provide a Latin Groove beat at one class, while another features an aerobic jam to hip-hop music. In California, cardio funk and aerobic belly-dancing classes are the rage.

In New York, yoga has gone hard-core. Members of the New York Road Runner's Club can't get enough of Power Yoga, a class that focuses on poses that stretch the legs and build the lower back muscles.

Whatever the reasons behind the creation of these "ethnoexercise" programs, says Alan, they're good for the industry. "They put more things on the menu for the public to select." Ethnic-flavored programs attract many who wouldn't normally attend group classes, and help keep the faithful from burning out.

Alan also points out that every 15 years or so the fitness industry faces the challenge of turning a new generation into enthusiasts. "Girls don't want to do the same workout their mothers did. By tying in something ethnic, cultural, or even generational, you make it just different enough from their mom's workout."

Martial Arts Go Mainstream

Like Latin music, traditional martial arts are inspiring some of the hottest fitness trends in the country. Tae bo and kickboxing, for example, are popular right now and about as different from the Jazzercise of the late 1970s as you can get. "It's a lot of fun and an amazing workout, judging by the amount of sweat in my hair," says Sandra Milan, a biotechnology executive in her 30s in the San Francisco Bay area.

In recent months, Milan has become a regular at her gym's cardio kickboxing class. "It teaches you to focus on what you are doing and to channel your breathing," Milan explains. She says she might even risk seeming "too California" and try a more traditional martial art such as tae kwon do.

Milan is not alone. Many students of hybrid workouts wind up seeking out more traditional exercise programs, Alan says. And as for cardio kickboxing classes, "they are more and more like the real thing now."

Messing with Tradition

Some fitness instructors, though, say they've been criticized for tampering with traditions. "There's a lot of snobbery in the fitness industry," says Summer Autio, who teaches at Del Mar Workout near San Diego, California. As the inventor of a class she calls Yoga Dance, Autio says she knows firsthand the downside of being on the cutting edge.

Yoga Dance mixes traditional yoga postures created in India centuries ago with spontaneous dance moves to the rhythms of world-beat music. But some teachers of traditional forms of the ancient practice, says Autio, frown upon doing yoga to that sort of music.

But Autio points out that both dancing and yoga are traditions that have offered people ways of "reaching a higher level" for ages. "The important thing is to help people feel better," Autio says. "As long as you're not being offensive, you should use whatever works."

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