"In the 1980s and early '90s, many exercise classes became very elitist," says Ken Alan, a kinesiologist and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. "Aerobics was great for those who had well-developed movement-to-music skills, but it alienated people who couldn't keep up with the complex choreography. They were looking for a more back-to-basics workout."
"I used to take aerobics classes, but they were a drag," says Nancy Peterson Walter, Ph.D., 65, of Mammoth Lakes, California. "All the women in the class seemed so bouncy, but I just couldn't keep up." Now she takes several classes that incorporate child's play: Splash, a pool workout involving games of catch and tag, and Y.A.H.OO, in which participants might play follow-the-leader or a Twister-like game to increase flexibility. "I try to create playful challenges," says Suzanne Nottingham, the instructor who designed these classes. "When children play, they are essentially cross-training: moving their bodies through many ranges of motion at different intensities. It's fun to get adults into that kind of situation."
Although classes like these are lighthearted, they aren't necessarily lightweight. A bit of exercise science theory explains why play can provide fitness benefits: "If you've been training for a while—maybe jumping on the treadmill a couple of times a week—your body becomes very efficient at that activity," says Keli Roberts, a personal trainer and group exercise instructor in Los Angeles. "But by throwing games and other fun activities into the mix, you demand something different and spontaneous from your body. And when you're doing something new, you are more likely to see gains in strength, stamina, and even weight loss."
Without a class, you can create do-it-yourself exercise fun if you're willing to let go of your inhibitions and look a little crazy. Jill Carson, 35, a personal chef based in Fort Worth, Texas, switches between skating, running, and biking workouts, always trying to infuse a little "silliness" into the mix. "I may go for a brisk walk and add some skipping in the middle of it," she says. "Sometimes I run through a sprinkler or challenge a kid to a bike race."
Carson added the fun element several years ago after realizing her workouts had grown stale and boring. "I was Miss Target Heart Rate. I was tired and not enjoying it—and was also walking the fine line between being highly fit and being injured. Now I don't even think of running or skating or biking as adult exercise," she says. "I have such a good time that I usually forget I'm working out."
We Hear You!