Why you should give the gym a second chance

CHALLENGE YOURSELF: The main advantage of a training in a class environment is that you generally work harder than when left to your own devices.
CHALLENGE YOURSELF: The main advantage of a training in a class environment is that you generally work harder than when left to your own devices.

A gym class isn't child's play exactly but it can involve playful movements like jumping up and down or standing on one leg, stuff we often leave behind with childhood. Yet these movements can benefit a grown-up's body.

Jumping can strengthen bones (more about this later) while standing on one leg improves balance. 

You don't need a gym to do either of these movements, but a good class can get you doing stuff you didn't know you could do.

Last year I struggled to jump up and down on to a bench with my feet together. Now I can do multiple jumps on to a bench that's triple the height. And I'm an Older Woman. This is a roundabout way of saying that if it's been a while since you went to a gym or you've never tried one, there are reasons to give it a go.    

A decade ago a typical cardio class at a gym could involve so many choreographed moves you almost needed brains in your feet as well as your head.

Now there's a trend to less complex exercises that improve all round physical function - not just aerobic fitness, but muscle strength, power, flexibility and bone density.   

Many have echoes of old school basic training with movements like push-ups, tuck jumps and burpees. Burpees? That's where you squat on the ground with your hands on the floor and kick your feet back so you're in a push-up position. Then you jump your feet back into the squat position, jump up in the air and do it all again.  

What's good about these movements is that although they take effort, they are not complicated to do and because you move quickly from one to another, there's no time to get bored.   

"Traditional classes like step or aerobic classes have waned and I think it's because the complexity of the choreography often compromised the physical benefits you got from them," says Alisha Smith, education manager with Australian Fitness Network, which trains fitness instructors. 

There's now a move towards classes based on functional training, meaning exercises that target multiple muscles at once rather than just one muscle, like a bicep curl.

These movements are also more closely related to activities of daily living. After all, she explains, there are very few movements that we do in our everyday lives that involve just one muscle.

"Classes are also designed to be more entertaining. Spending 45 minutes on a treadmill can be boring and boredom affects exercise adherence," Smith says. 

Another trend is for shorter 30 or even 15-minute classes, based on the principle of high intensity interval training (HIIT) meaning you work out at a harder pace but for less time.  

None of this means you can't get fit without a gym. You can. I'm the first to argue that a run or walk outdoors beats an indoor slog on the treadmill.  But one advantage of a class is that you generally work harder than when left to your own devices.

It also pushes you to vary your movements. Modern living can limit how we use our body. We walk a bit, sit a lot, don't lift much weight and we don't jump.

Yet research shows jumping is the most effective exercise for improving bone density, says Professor Robin Daly, chair of exercise and ageing at Deakin University. He says bones thrive on the stress and element of surprise that comes with jumping. 

"We should include bone loading activities like jumping, skipping and hopping. To improve bone density it's more important to vary the direction in which you jump than to keep jumping higher. Jumping from side to side is one way - so is a burpee," he says. 

"We don't know exactly how much jumping is needed to improve bone density but our research suggests 50 to 100 multi-directional jumps three to five times a week. You don't have to jump up and down - you could jump on and off steps or do foot stomping while you stand and do the dishes."

While jumping isn't suitable for anyone with osteoporosis or osteoarthritis, it doesn't appear to cause problems with knee cartilage. 

"Our research over 18 months with a group of men and women aged 60 and over showed no negative consequences with cartilage but improvements in bone density," Daly says. 

But back to the gym. What if you're intimidated by the idea of a class?

"You often hear people say 'I'll get fit and then I'll go to the gym', because they feel they don't fit what they see as the gym stereotype," says Smith.

" But don't beat yourself up - gyms aren't as judgmental as you think. Talk to the staff and find out what classes are suitable for your level of fitness. A class might look intimidating at first but instructors are trained to look for people who need extra help." 

Sydney Morning Herald