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The History of Group Fitness


Get the Basics…

  • Group fitness classes started based on the idea of disease prevention
  • Classes today draw roots from classes up to 50 years ago
  • As science and research continues to evolve, so will group fitness classes

Working out in a group setting seems commonplace today, but it wasn’t all too long ago that this was a foreign concept. It wasn’t so much that people never worked out together, but there previously was no real thought or method as to why this would be beneficial. Once the benefits were discovered, group fitness became more and more popular and the variety of class options grew.

As with most new concepts, group fitness began relatively basic. It followed the ideas that were most prominent at the time, and class content reflected that. As time went on and people’s fitness goals evolved, so did class formats. In the present day, we have so much research and science available that helps us design a variety of class offerings to accommodate all goals.

If you are a gym owner or manager, you will also want to have a wide variety for your patrons. Find out what to offer by checking out the history offered below, and then check out our business management software to help you stay organized.

Where Did It All Begin?

In 1968, Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper published a book, Aerobics, that would lay the foundation for an entirely new industry that is still thriving today. Cooper not only encouraged people to exercise but also suggested using exercise as a means to prevent disease rather than to treat it. People today use group fitness, and exercise in general, for a variety of reasons, but they all can be traced back to the ideas introduced by Cooper, the “father of aerobics,” who can be seen in the video below:

Dr. Cooper was not afraid to take a dose of his own medicine. In fact, he was walking the walk before he ever knew he would one day talk the talk. In high school, Cooper was a three-sport star in football, basketball, and track. He went on to attend and complete medical school at the University of Oklahoma on a track scholarship before joining the military as a doctor.

Unlike his son, Cooper’s father always feared the effects of exercise. It was a popular theory, in that time, that an athletic heart would lead to an early death. After achieving success in his medical theories, Cooper saw the dry humor of the situation. “It’s ironic that the one thing my father thought would kill me–exercise–would be the one thing that I’d prove that helps prolong life.”

Group fitness would not exist today if the concept of physical activity to improve our health had never come to light, and thus group fitness classes would not exist in their current form without Dr. Cooper. His suggestion paved the way for the fitness industry to continue thriving five decades later. Each decade evolved from the previous, but all traced back to the roots laid in 1968. These roots did not take long to grab hold, however, and by the end of the decade, group fitness was starting to take off.

Would You Care to Dance?

– Jazzercise

People quickly bought into the idea of disease prevention by means of exercise, but they were not so quick to be motivated by its monotony. Enter dancer Judi Sheppard Missett, along with her leotards and leg warmers.

In 1969, Missett was teaching a dance class while in school at Northwestern University. Eventually, she noticed her class numbers were slowly declining due to the complex dance technique involved in her choreography. It came to her attention that her participants were more interested in exercising than dancing.

For this reason, Missett changed her approach. She began employing easier dance steps and adding in a flare of positive encouragement to give more of a workout than a dance lesson. Her first class under the new format had 15 participants, and by the third, there were 60. This format lead to the creation of the branded dance fitness program known as Jazzercise. Today, the program combines elements of dance, yoga, pilates, and kickboxing to create a workout that is still going strong.

As the popularity of Jazzercise grew, so did the time commitment for Missett. By 1971, she was teaching 35 classes per week. After being warned by her doctor that losing her voice was a very real possibility. Missett gathered her best class participants, taught them her choreography, and turned them into instructors.

Eventually, she collected a portion of class revenue in exchange for her choreography. This lead to the option for adding a certification under the Jazzercise name and, by the time it was all said and done, Missett had created the first franchised group exercise format. Today, there are hundreds of franchised formats, and they can all thank Missett for her innovation back in 1969.

Jazzercise is still going strong today but, for those who think nothing has changed, the company assures potential participants or franchisees that they are keeping up with the times. Its website states, “Today the leotards are long gone and our classes are way too hot for legwarmers. We’re still evolving and transforming people’s bodies and their lives.”

– Aerobic Dance

Around the same time that Jazzercise was created, another dance-based exercise program was in the works. In 1969, Jackie Sorensen was asked to design a fitness television program for military wives in Puerto Rico, the same place her husband was stationed. Wanting to be both thorough and effective, she began to research forms of exercises she could use. She found her inspiration when she picked up the newly released Aerobics, authored by military doctor Kenneth Cooper.

From there, Sorensen developed the idea to combine dance with aerobic movements. She would combine different styles of dance with movements such as high knees, hopping, skipping, running in place, or football feet to create what would become known as Aerobic Dancing.

Sorensen debuted Aerobic Dancing at her local YMCA, and it quickly grew in popularity. Within several months, a single class with six participants had grown into two classes with 25 attendees each. Word spread, and after a while, Aerobic Dancing could be found at other YMCA’s and also at different colleges in the area.

By 1975, Aerobic Dancing had grown into a business in such a successful manner that Sorensen’s husband, Neil, was able to quit his job and become a member of the Aerobic Dancing team. With Neil focusing on the business side of things, Jacki was able to run the more creative aspects. The two teamed up to run a program that is still widely utilized by fitness enthusiasts around the world.

A Step Forward

– Step Aerobics

While the initial concept of group exercise was born from the idea of injury and disease prevention, one of the most popular classes in history came along when its creator was recovering from an injury.

In the late 1980s, Gin Miller was instructed, by her physical therapist, to step up and down on a crate to strengthen her legs following a knee injury. After a while, Miller found that she was not just strengthening her legs, but also getting a good aerobic workout. The only problem was that it was boring.

She decided that playing music while she was doing her rehabilitation exercises would help relieve the boredom and, from that idea, step aerobics was born. Since its initial inception, the class has fine-tuned the details. Rather than simply listening to any song, the class is performed to continuous tracks of music playing at speeds of 120-135 beats per minute. Typical breakdowns of movements go in counts of 32 beats before either repeating or adding in new choreography.

Step aerobics was at its peak in the 1990s when you could find it on nearly any gym’s group fitness schedule, likely at least several times per week. With a larger variety of fitness class offerings in the present, step class has lost some of its popularity but remains a favorite in the hearts of many people. There is no denying that it is still a great workout and, because of that, you will still find it on many schedules today.

Putting a New Spin on Group Fitness

– Spinning

Until 1989, if you were training for a cycling competition, you had to do so outdoors. This became a problem for South African cyclist, Johnny Goldberg, during his wife’s pregnancy. He realized that he would not have the time needed to commit to training away from home, so he decided to find a better way. Goldberg was able to create the first indoor bike capable of handling the rigorous training needed for cycling. The key to the bike was the ability to withstand long periods of both sitting and standing.

After finding success with his bike, named the Johnny G. Spinner, Goldberg built several more and began teaching classes, out of his garage, to clients and friends. Demand for his classes eventually became so high that he had to opened two Spin Centres in California. These fun and effective classes spread quickly, and by 1994 he was able to trademark his brand name, Spinning. Not long after, he opened the Spinning world headquarters, highlighted by 40 Johnny G. Spinners produced by Schwinn.

The popularity of Spinning has not only maintained but skyrocketed since its creation. The company is in 80 different countries, worldwide, and has sold over 1,000,000 of its bikes for commercial and consumer use. In addition to its individual success, Spinning has spawned the creation of many other cycling bikes and classes all over the world. General cycling classes are often referred to as Spinning, but there is only one true branded class that can use that name, and it’s thanks to the work of Johnny Goldberg.

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Back to the Future

In the early and mid-2000s, group fitness experienced a revival. Class formats that were thought to be for a different generation were given a breath of fresh air, a new name, and a primetime spot on schedules everywhere. These new classes paid homage to the roots laid by their predecessors but put a modern spin on past success. Two headliners in this category are Zumba and Soul Cycle.

– Zumba

Some of the best inventions happen by accident, and Zumba is no exception. In 1986, an aerobics instructor in Columbia name Alberto “Beto” Perez showed up to teach his class but mistakenly forgot his normal music.

Not wanting to cancel the class, he decided to improvise and play the salsa and merengue music he happened to have with him. The resulting class featured a combination of dancing and aerobics, which would later become known as Zumba 15 years later.

Perez brought his Latin-inspired fitness class to Miami in 1999 and, two years later, met Alberto Pearlman and Alberto Aghion. Together, the three Alberto’s trademarked the name Zumba and have never looked back. More than not looking back, they have exploded with success in the fitness industry. There are 70,000 locations in the United States that offer Zumba programs, making up 95% of fitness centers.

If the combination of dance and aerobics sounds familiar, you are probably hearing the echoes of Jazzercise and Aerobic Dancing. It is true, these two classes are similar to the basic class outline of Zumba in that they are based on dance fitness. Zumba, however, falls closer to Jazzercise in that it focuses more on dance elements than adding in other aerobic movements.

Also similar to Jazzercise, Zumba is a franchised brand. For a monthly fee, Zumba instructors receive new music and choreography that they are able to use in their classes. In addition, the Zumba company gives instructors tools for marketing, as well as discounts for apparel and additional education.

– Soul Cycle

When Johnny Goldberg invented his indoor cycling bike, he had no idea of the impact he would make on the future of group fitness. As cycling classes became more popular, so did the desire to take another step in the workout. People did not only want to pedal a bike, but they wanted to get a full-body workout from the class.

In 2006, Elizabeth Cutler, Julie Rice, and Ruth Zukerman opened the first Soul Cycle location. The class emphasizes candle-lit studios, motivational instructors, and high-energy music to inspire its riders. More than spinning wheels round and round, Soul Cycle provides a workout that engages the core and upper body at various points during the class.

Yes, Soul Cycle is based on the same foundation as most cycling classes, but they look to add more. In addition to wanting their participants to get a great workout, they want them to have an experience. Soul Cycle looks to leave its participants with a lasting feeling of energy and accomplishment at the end of class. Riders experience a sense of comradery amongst each other and the joyful feeling after class leaves them wanting to come back for more.

Since being acquired by Equinox Fitness in 2011, Soul Cycle has experienced a boom in popularity. They now have over 30 locations throughout the United States and over 20,000 weekly participants. The total number of enthusiasts has reached over 440,000 and is sure to continue growing. Although the company has added its own twist to the basic concept of cycling, the foundation can still be traced back to the original idea brought forth by Goldberg in the late 1980s.

Latest Trends

In today’s group fitness world, people are working harder than ever, both to maintain their health and to shape their bodies in their ideal way. Rather than length of workout, the focus is being shifted to the intensity of the workout, which is the science behind high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Everyone wants to work smarter, not harder, and that is the principle behind classes like Orange Theory and CrossFit.

– Orange Theory

A full-body workout focusing on endurance, strength, and power, Orange Theory utilizes the principles of HIIT to deliver an effective workout that has participants coming back time after time. Using heart rate-based technology, you are able to see your statistics in real-time compared to other class participants. Your coach will guide you through the appropriate exertion rate, but everything is uniquely based on your heart rate.

This workout uses water-rowers, treadmills, TRX, dumbbells, and a myriad of other equipment to deliver a workout that challenges both cardio and resistance for everyone. Due to the need to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), HIIT training keeps you burning calories for hours after the class has ended. For this reason, Orange Theory is highly touted for its results and its membership is booming because of it.

In the present day, Orange Theory has over 1,000 locations. As a franchised company, potential owners can open a location of their own for roughly $325,000 and a staff of 15 employees. The company is committed to growth and has even hired a dietician to explore the potential areas for a nutrition plan specifically designed with this type of workout.

Even though you are competing as an individual based on your own heart rate, you will still be motivated by the other participants around you. This is an entirely new avenue for group fitness and, so far, the results have been admirable.

– CrossFit

Widely characterized by its intensity, CrossFit challenges the entire body with each WOD, or workout of the day. The routines are generally shorter and known for their unique names like Fran, Chelsea, or Diane. When asked why many of the workouts have female names, founder Greg Glassman joked, “Any workout that leaves you flat on your back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell happened, deserves a girl’s name.”

Of course, many of the workouts have other names. CrossFit also boasts hero workouts, named for military, police, or firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Whatever the name may be, many people are cursing it because of the way they feel by the end of the workout. The intensity can be a lot to handle, but the company assures its workout can be done by anyone if they listen to their bodies.

Yesterday’s Impact on Today’s Classes

It started out fairly simple. Aerobic exercise was theorized to help prevent injury and disease. At the time, group fitness classes focused exactly on that. By primarily utilizing aerobic exercise, classes challenged the cardiovascular system with full-body and dance-based classes. Eventually, creativity and science progressed, and resistance began to be added into group workouts. Step Aerobics and Spinning were huge hits in the 1980s and 1990s.

As the years progressed, group fitness took inspiration from an older generation of classes. Zumba took the fitness world by storm, unintentionally drawing comparisons to Jazzercise and Aerobic Dancing from 30 years prior. Around the same period, Soul Cycle came into its own by motivating riders with its high-energy music and instructors. While the class is very different from the 1990s version using the Johnny G. Spinner, the company certainly would not be where it is today without the innovation of Johnny G. Goldberg.

Some things never change but others evolve with time. Group fitness can be categorized with the latter. While foundations from the past still hold strong, it is the influences of previous decades that have shaped group workouts into what they are today. Things will continue to evolve as time goes on but, if we’ve learned anything, it is that the past will always have an influence on the future.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

– Are group fitness classes from previous decades no longer effective?

They are absolutely still effective. As time has gone on, more formats and varieties of classes have come along, but many people still enjoy and benefit from Jazzercise, Step Aerobics, or other programs that were more popular in previous time periods.

– Aren’t some of today’s class formats just copying what has previously been developed?

Many class formats today draw influences from their predecessors, but they are not copying. Trademarks and franchises allow some companies to show that they are unique by putting their own spin on a popular class style. And, at the end of the day, isn’t imitation the most sincere form of flattery?

– Have we reached the peak of group fitness?

If history has taught us anything, it is that nothing will ever stay completely the same. It is safe to say that as research, science, and technology continue to develop, the group fitness industry and its class offerings will continue to grow and evolve.

If this history lesson has impacted the way you view your company’s schedule, request a demo of our fitness business management software to see how we can help.



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