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Burnt Out on Aerobics 'Burn' Philosophy

January 04, 1990|JAN HOFMANN

OK, left foot forward. Energy! Come on, you can do it! Bring it back, four counts. If you're getting breathless, slow down. Now step-touch for eight! Almost done! Good. Let's march it out!

Going for the burn may have gone out of style with Cabbage Patch Kids and video Ping-Pong, but if you think you can skip aerobics class now that the '80s are history, think again. Looks like plenty of us are going to be pulling on those leotards and leg warmers well into the next century.

Of course, '90s aerobics may be barely recognizable compared to those hardy pioneers who huffed and puffed a decade ago, say Richard and Susan Foley, husband-and-wife aerobics instructors (yes, they met on the aerobics floor) who live in El Toro. Founders of the Professional Fitness Instructors Assn. of Orange County, the Foleys signed up for their first aerobics classes back in the early '80s, when the field was in its formative stages.

"Back then there was just one kind of class, just plain aerobics," says Susan, aerobics coordinator at the El Toro Physical Fitness Center. "Now you can choose from low-impact and high-impact, low-impact with weights, circuit training, body sculpting, pregnancy classes, classes for seniors--there's a lot of variety." And each type of class has benefited from continuing research on the most efficient and safest ways to burn fat.

"We've learned so much over the years," says Richard, a full-time structural engineer who also teaches three classes a week at Nautilus Plus Aerobics in Irvine. "In the early days, everybody did their own thing. There was no central focus. And a lot of what we were doing then was just plain wrong."

Early aerobics instructors knew that the idea was to help participants increase their heart rates and keep them up for 20 minutes or more in order to burn body fat aerobically--meaning "with oxygen." But many of them didn't understand that the actual burning sensation satirized in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip back in 1982 ("Yes, but it's a good burn") meant just the opposite. That burning feeling, aerobics instructors now know, came from a buildup of lactic acid in muscles deprived of oxygen because they were being worked too hard and too fast. And without oxygen, fat doesn't burn.

In other words, "aerobics used to be anaerobic," Richard says.

"Back then, it was like, the harder, the better," he says. Except for the fact that most participants were women, "it seemed a lot like football practice," he says.

"We really believed that stuff about no pain, no gain," adds Susan.

For some students, the pain involved was far more than a burn. Some exercises, such as one called the plow, which involves supporting most of the body's weight with the neck and shoulders, were likely to cause injuries.

Now, however, most aerobics workouts are much less punishing and, at the same time, more effective, the Foleys say.

The changes have left some participants confused.

"When you sign up for aerobics class, you can't be sure what kind of workout you'll get unless you know what to look for," Richard says.

And because there is no standardized training or continuing education for instructors, a class leader may or may not be up on the latest research.

The Foleys founded the nonprofit PFIA a year ago to address both those problems. Now with more than 100 members, the organization promotes public awareness about aerobics and serves as a forum for aerobics instructors. At a typical meeting, members may hear the latest medical information from a cardiologist or trade tips on choreography and music. The group also publishes a monthly newsletter and in February will hold its first awards banquet to honor outstanding instructors, coordinators and fitness facilities in the county.

"When we started teaching, the only requirements for an aerobics instructor were to look good in a leotard and have your own music," Susan says. Eventually, the Foleys say they would like to see some sort of minimum credentials required for all aerobics instructors.

Music, by the way, has also changed dramatically over the years in aerobics. "It used to be, you'd just put on a record," Susan says.

And when the record ended, Richard recalls, "we would just go down on the floor while the instructor found another record and put it on. We didn't know it wasn't good to just stop suddenly."

Now, however, informed instructors carefully select music with a steady beat, starting off slow for warm-ups, faster--but not too fast--for the aerobic part of the workout and then even slower for the cool-down at the end.

"You don't want to have any speed bumps, and you want the moves to stay with the phasing of the music, so people can anticipate when the next change is coming," Susan says.

If you're considering enrolling in aerobics, don't choose a class solely on the basis of schedule, location or even price.

"The most expensive classes aren't necessarily the best," Richard says. "Most places will let you take a class first without signing up, and if you do that with several, you'll have a basis for comparison."

And if you enjoy aerobics but don't like a particular class, don't give up.

"People can get frustrated," Susan says. "You get a bad instructor, and you think there's something wrong with you. We don't want people to get turned off to aerobics because they may have (had) a bad experience."

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

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