As a kid, I went to my mother's gym and watched her do step aerobics while I sloshed back and forth on a Nordic Track. Since then, I've wondered if there's a junkyard full of Scandinavian-themed ski machines rusting away in the sun as I moved on to Stairmasters and later spin bikes. These days I've been hitting parkour classes, scrambling through cargo nets like an American Ninja reject, succumbing to the latest thing yet again.
The trendiness of fitness is something that those in the industry often lament and those outside the industry openly mock; witness Saturday Night Live gleefully ridiculing 80s aerobics or the Shake Weight. (To be fair, the Shake Weight is comic gold.) And while people roll their eyes at aqua cycling, black-light yoga, and parkour, I say bring it on. Fitness fads deserve some respect. They're fertile ground for progress and they can offer some very real physical and mental benefits.
The best reason to try a new fitness fad is actually its mental benefits, which are quite powerful when it comes to motivation. In fact, it's a key reason these fads exist in the first place. On a neurological level, we're attracted to novelty, and actively seek it out. Studies have shown the dopamine system gets switched on in reaction to novelty, says Russell Alan Poldrack, professor of psychology at Stanford University. In this case, he says, dopamine helps us establish a craving for those post-exercise endorphins.
Alas, there are few studies looking specifically at novelty and exercise together, but it's not hard to see how the brain's reaction would apply to your average workout. As Poldrack says, "Dopamine is fundamentally important for motivation—interfering with dopamine function in animals causes them to be unmotivated to obtain rewards." He adds, "They still like the rewards if they receive them; they just don't want to work for them." In other words, having a novel workout to try is likely to motivate you to actually go do it. Without novelty driving you out the door, you may wistfully long for an endorphin boost, but be unwilling to switch off Netflix and go get it.
This effect can be spotted in the real world. Case in point: Fitness trackers lose 42 percent of their users at the six-month mark—around the time that bracelet loses its new-plastic smell, it loses its appeal, too. Extending this argument, it's possible that this could be why the majority of diet and exercise regimes fail. After awhile, the routine becomes the norm; no more dopamine and lots more drudgery. It could be that switching up your exercise routine to the latest newfangled thing every six months is enough to keep you permanently motivated.
Apart from providing motivation, the boost of novelty could even offer a built-in painkilling perk. Poldrack speculates that because new tasks require greater attention to perform, it could "reduce our attention to the physical discomfort and thus make it seem less aversive." In other words, when your brain is hyper-focused on learning a new Tae Bo routine (hahahah), it's less focused on the strugglefest your muscles are going through.
So there's obvious mental benefits to trying out trendy fitness, but what about the physical side? There, too, the benefits are real. Consider the gains made by cross-training and mixing up your movement by doing something new. Even devoted gym-goers can suffer from imbalances and injury from doing the same thing day in, day out. Craig Weller, Precision Nutrition's exercise specialist, puts it like this, "The majority of gym and fitness class training takes place in the sagittal plane only (straight forward or up and down, like a bench press, squat or deadlift)." It's why even the strongest weightlifters can open themselves up to injury. "You may become good at picking up a weight straight off the ground and setting it back down directly in front of you, but then you roll your ankle walking on uneven ground or strain your back loading groceries into your car," he explains. To bottom line it: Vehemently sticking to the same gym routine will level off your progress. "[If you do that], you're not going to develop a range of energy systems and forms of strength."
Weller is quick to point out he's no fan of gimmicky fitness. Outside of their training, he and other Precision Nutrition staff engage in holistic movement beyond the gym: surfing, dancing, or skiing. But many of these movements have their trendy fitness class equivalent—Surfset, Zumba, etc. These indoor exercises du jour may not offer quite the same quality of movement as their counterparts, but they're a heck of a lot easier to squeeze into your lunch break and don't require jamming yourself into a wet suit.
Another thing to keep in mind is that today's accepted fitness tool was yesterday's trend. Weller offers that kettlebells have been a handy addition to the scene. And while kettlebells have origins possibly dating to the 5th century, they weren't a mainstay in US fitness until the 2000s. Rolling Stone even put kettlebells on its "Hot List" in 2002, a groan-worthy indication of its trendiness. Even running was once the "jogging fad" of the '70s. The important thing is not following every fitness class blindly but being selective about the activities that will meet your personal goals and doing your homework. Don't prop the door open for every junky ab rocker to swing into your life.
If you do that homework, you'll see that some fitness trends have been rushing to move the ball forward to keep up with the latest science. Our understanding of the human body keeps changing, and the gym landscape moves quickly to reflect that. Just witness the explosion of HIIT classes or classes that use heart-monitor to maximize our workout benefits. Those are a direct result of recent studies that have shown optimal results come within certain intervals of exertion or certain heart rates. If fitness trends didn't update all the time to reflect science, we'd still be going to the gym to strap into fat-jiggling belts.
I want to be on the front lines to get the best benefits in exercise for my mind and body. And I want to keep my motivation topped up. So go ahead and laugh as I jump around on trampolines, hula-hoop to Beyonce, or vault over parkour pyramids. Some may argue my workout routine is a revolving door of fitness trends, but I prefer to see it as a conga line. Incidentally, that could be the next workout I try. Check back with me in six months.
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