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The Aerobics Conundrum

Imagine if your doctor told you to increase your weekly cardio, and you decided to sign up for aerobic classes at your local gym. However, when you arrived for the 9 AM aerobics class on Monday, you found yourself in a fitness class centered around Latin-inspired dancing. While you broke a sweat and struggled to keep up, it wasn't what you expected. On Tuesday, you showed up again for aerobics and found benches lined up with barbell equipment. The class focused on high repetition muscle conditioning, leaving your muscles sore but not providing the cardio workout you were seeking. Wednesday brought yet another surprise as you entered the studio to find yoga mats spread across the room. The 45-minute class focused on breathing and stretching, leaving you increasingly frustrated. Thursday's class featured chairs and attendees mostly in their 80s, while Friday's class introduced suspension ropes for body resistance training, but there were only 10 available spots and you hadn't signed up. At this point, you were beyond frustrated because you signed up for a gym class that promised aerobic conditioning, yet the actual classes were completely different from what you expected.

As you can imagine, if this were truly the case, no gym would be able to grow. When members enter our facilities, they expect to see a group fitness schedule with a variety of offerings. For example, Mondays might offer Zumba, Tuesdays could be dedicated to Barbell Conditioning, Wednesdays to yoga, Thursdays to chair fitness, and Fridays to TRX suspension. Each class has a specific purpose, definition, and title that helps students understand its focus during the 45-minute session. This is how the fitness industry works.

However, in the Aquatic Fitness industry, there seems to be a different approach. All aquatic fitness classes are commonly referred to as "Water Aerobics," even though the classes may have different teachers or formats. The schedule simply states "Water Aerobics" at 9:00 AM every day. Let's take a moment to recognize the harm that this simple word does to both our industry and the potential growth of our membership base.

To begin, let's examine the definition of aerobic conditioning according to Webster's Dictionary:

"Aerobics: a system of physical conditioning involving exercises (such as running, walking, swimming, or calisthenics) strenuously performed so as to cause marked temporary increase in respiration and heart rate."

Aerobics is a physical conditioning system aimed at improving the body's ability to utilize oxygen. Activities such as running, jogging, swimming, and dancing stimulate heart and lung activity. To derive benefits from aerobic training, the heart rate must be raised to the exerciser's training level for at least 20 minutes, and a minimum of three sessions per week is required.

Now, let's pause and reflect on the classes you teach in relation to this definition. Does the term "Aerobics" accurately describe the content of your class? Do you bring your students to the aerobic threshold for more than 20 minutes? Do they engage in steady-state training? In most cases, this is not the case. We often teach dance, HIIT, balance, arthritis exercises, intervals, or boot camps. As an industry, we need to start considering our classes as an aqua studio rather than just an aqua class. A well-balanced schedule should offer a variety of classes with different intensity levels and cross-training modalities, all designed with a specific intent in mind.

How do you choose a name for your class? When adding an aquatic fitness class to the schedule, remember that words hold power. The name you choose for your class matters. Before settling on a name, consider the ultimate outcome of your format.

What will students receive, and what should they expect?

Is the class focused on strength?

Does it involve low-impact exercises with intervals of lower intensity?

Does your class move to the beat of the music?

Try to summarize your class in 2-3 sentences that capture its essence, and then find 1-4 words that encapsulate the key elements.

For example:

  • Boot Camp H20: Students will be pushed past training plateaus with shallow water training designed to target agility, balance, coordination, speed, and cardio capacity.

  • Stretch & Balance: This low-intensity class focuses on mobility, functional movement, and active stretching, supported by the water's resistance.

Consider adding an intensity scale to your schedule. Many prominent fitness centers have redesigned their schedules, whether on their app or website, to include an intensity scale. This scale helps students quickly determine the level of intensity for each class. For example, a variety of yoga classes can be differentiated through the title and intensity scale. This allows students to identify if a class is foundational and gentle or includes high-intensity interval training in a heated room. Both classes fall under the category of yoga but have significantly different intensity levels. Collaborate with your manager and explore the possibility of introducing intensity scales to guide members toward the appropriate class.

Let's also strive to be inclusive in our formats. Search "Aqua Aerobics" in your internet browser and click on the images. What do you see?

Most likely, images of seniors holding hand buoys above their heads, with dry hair and calm waters. While this may represent a standard low-intensity aquatic fitness class, the imagery and stereotype associated with the term "aerobics" can be exclusionary.

Now, search for "Aquatic Fitness" and examine the images. You'll likely find a more diverse catalog featuring specialty equipment, a variety of age groups, and different exercise styles in the water.

As professionals, we know that water is beneficial for everybody and EVERY-BODY, not just specific populations. Using inclusive language in class descriptions can invite new clients to try the water, even those who might be put off by the mental image associated with "Aqua Aerobics."

For example:

  • Hydro Fit: A traditional aquatic fitness class that improves flexibility, range of motion, strength, muscle tone, and cardiovascular endurance using the resistance of the water.

  • Tabata H20: Tabata training breaks down a workout into intervals of 20 seconds of exercise and 10 seconds of total rest. This high-intensity class ensures a full-body workout in 45 minutes or less.

As an industry, we must work together to change the perception of aquatic fitness. I challenge you and your facility to abandon the term "aerobics" and add more focus to your schedule. Once we establish clear definitions and terminology for the classes we offer, we will see positive momentum in transforming this industry.

Katy Coffey is the Senior Aquatics Trainer for the YMCA of the North Shore. For more examples of their "Liquid Gym," visit their Aquatic Fitness Schedule Page at

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