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Aerobics: Aging Gracefully

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Remember leg warmers?

There was a time when no one could take an aerobic dance class without those little wooly tubes around their ankles and calves.

"Jane Fonda with that striped leotard and the leg warmers — that's what everybody was wearing," recalled Kathie Davis, once a dance class leader and now a fitness trade group executive. "The outfits were great."

A lot has changed since "Jane Fonda's Workout" video captured the aerobic dance style in 1982. And losing the leg warmers is only part of it. Like many of its participants, the movement has matured. While it still works hard at keeping young, it realizes it has to age gracefully.

Some 24.3 million people took aerobic exercise classes last year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, which tracks exercise trends.

It's a big leap from 1969, when Jacki Sorensen's Aerobic Dance and Judi Sheppard Missett's Jazzercise were getting the movement started.

"The first class, I had 15 people," Missett said. "Now, we have 19,000 classes per week and the average class size is 35 to 50."

Missett said her jazz dance-based program attracted former dancers "who were looking to have fun — to remember the days when they used to go to dance class."

Dance was just about all women could do before the federal gender equity requirements known as Title IX cracked open the doors to high school and college athletics in 1972. Women who were entering aerobic dance classes in their 20s, 30s and 40s "were never on a sports team, and a lot were never good at physical education," Davis said.

But women knew how to dance because, growing up in the 1950s and '60s, everybody danced, said Gin Miller, who founded the Step Aerobics method.

Aerobic dance was their open door, Davis said: "The last ones picked on the teams were, for the first time, discovering that exercise can actually be fun."

It was even empowering. "This was a sort of physical right that became part of the women's movement," Miller said. "There was a sexiness to it. There was this freedom to be in these little tiny outfits and to be moving and grooving to the music."

Also, health clubs were a good place to meet guys.

This was the period in which Jim Fixx was launching a boom in exercise as an enjoyable and healthy hobby, with his bestseller, "The Complete Book of Running," published in 1977.

Women who didn't run joined in the movement by going to dance classes, fueling a stronger demand for instructors. But aerobics class instructors, largely drawn from dance, had a lot to learn about the physiology of exercise.

"I figured out how much was enough by listening to my own body and what other students in the class had to say," Missett said. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as she began to train other instructors in her methods, she began to call in exercise physiologists to look over the program and suggest improvements.

The demand for knowledge, and the ability to prove that an instructor had it, led to education and certification programs, such as the International Dance Exercise Association, which Davis cofounded 20 years ago. Since then, IDEA split into Davis' for-profit education and trade group, IDEA Health and Fitness Association, and the not-for-profit certification organization, the American Council on Exercise.

Aerobic dance routines in the early days largely were high-impact — a lot of jumps and kicks that were hard on the joints, especially the knees. It wasn't until 1985 that low-impact aerobics came into being as an option, because of increased injuries, Davis said.

The trend has continued as the baby boomers who started in aerobic dance grow older. Miller developed her system of stepping onto and off of low platforms in 1986 after she injured a knee — an injury she blamed largely on teaching too many classes of high-impact.

Step aerobics also responded to another problem that the industry faced: staleness. Aerobic dance was maturing. To recapture that youthful edge — to attract new participants and keep older ones from dropping out from boredom, the industry had to keep reinventing itself.

Kickboxing dance classes such as Tae Bo developed from martial arts. Handweights entered classes from the gym floor. The focus broadened from dance to group exercise, such as Spinning — instructor-led group exercise bike rides.

And the reinvention continues. The latest trends include yoga, balance training and Pilates — a stretching and strengthening system that itself is a longtime favorite of dancers. "People are looking for a new way to exercise that is kinder and gentler on their bodies," Davis said.

Boomers want exercise that will keep them functioning better, and don't want to try for a lean, ripped look, Miller said.

However, some dance holdovers seem to be gone for good, and the leg warmers are among them. They were supposed to help keep the lower legs warm until the dancers were warmed up, but today's aerobic dancers seem to do just as well without them. "Women are wearing shorts and T-shirts," Davis said. "It's less showy, but more functional."

By Ira Dreyfuss