Zumba has taken the world by storm—you’d be hard pressed to find a city without a broad roster of classes. Zumba is regarded as being a lot of fun, but how does it rate in terms of fitness?
In one scientific study by the University of Wisconsin, this Latin-inspired dancercise actually fared very well.
Zumba can help you tone and sculpt your body, burn a boatload of calories, while at the same time improving your balance, coordination, and cardio endurance.
It turns out that Zumba may also help your social life. Sporting the slogan, “Ditch the workout—join the party!” Zumba utilizes a fusion of dance moves from Salsa, Merengue, Reggaeton, and Flamenco.
The emphasis is on the fun, rather than the exercise, which draws folks who prefer dancing to pumping iron. Zumba aficionados claim that FUN is the secret ingredient.
Zumba’s Birth Was Unplanned
In 1986, Columbia-born Alberto “Beto” Perez was teaching an aerobics class in his native Cali when he discovered he’d forgotten his usual music. Desperately digging through his bag of tapes, Perez threw together a mix of his favorite salsa and meringue tunes, which ended up being an unexpected hit—and voila, Zumba was born.
After a good deal of success in Colombia and some subsequent entrepreneurial support, Zumba spread across America, starting with Miami in 1999. The word “zumba” is Spanish slang for “buzz like a bee” or “move fast”—and you really DO have to move!
Is Zumba an Effective Workout, or Is It Just Fun?
Despite its feverish popularity, little scientific research has been done to establish Zumba’s fitness benefits. In 2012, a team of exercise scientists were commissioned to determine whether or not Zumba fitness holds up as an effective workout.
The study was funded by a grant from the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Department of Exercise and Sports Science set out to determine the average exercise intensity and energy expenditure of a typical Zumba class. They found the following:3
- Zumba participants burned an average of 369 calories in a single Zumba fitness class, or about 9.5 kcal per minute.
- Participants’ average heart rate was 154 beats per minute, which is roughly 80 percent of their average predicted maximum heart rate.
Accepted fitness industry guidelines recommend exercising in the range of 64 to 94 percent of your maximum heart rate to improve cardio endurance, and Zumba met those requirements.
- When heart rate monitor strips were examined, they looked much like interval workouts, going back and forth between high intensity and low intensity. Therefore, Zumba can help you burn more calories than a steady-state exercise, such as jogging.
- In terms of VO2 max (oxygen consumption), the subjects averaged 64 percent, which is well within industry recommendations of 40 to 85 percent for improving cardio endurance—which increases your longevity!
Of particular note is that maximum heart rate and oxygen consumption responses for all study participants fell within the range of industry guidelines, in spite of their wide range of fitness levels.
In comparison with other exercises tested by the University of Wisconsin, Zumba burned more calories than cardio kickboxing, step aerobics, hooping, and power yoga. This research certainly suggests that Zumba can be a highly effective total-body workout with a wide range of benefits.
The Health Benefits of Zumba
There are plenty of anecdotal stories to support the effectiveness of Zumba—take Ashlee Tomsche, for example. Ashlee was 21 and weighed 331 pounds, but by doing Zumba, she lost 123 pounds, six dress sizes and 10 inches from her waistline. During a Zumba class, you engage many muscles, but you’re often unaware that you’re incorporating traditional fitness moves like squats and lunges because you’re so engrossed in the music and dance. Whether you’re young or old, fit or not, it can be a fun and challenging workout from head to toe.
Zumba teachers are taught to alternate fast and slow rhythms, which simulate interval or high intensity training. Short, high-intensity intervals have been found to be much better for your heart and overall fitness than extended cardio. A study involving middle-aged adults found insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation improved after just two weeks of interval training, three times a week.
The fact that most Zumba-goers regard it as fun adds another dimension of benefits—if you truly enjoy an activity, your follow-through will probably be better than if it feels like drudgery. Research also shows that music tends to make people exercise harder—and music is a major part of Zumba.
Cornell researchers found that those who regard their workouts as fun eat less afterward. Conversely, those who regard their workouts as work eat more snacks and desserts to reward themselves. So, the more you can take the “work” out of your workout, the better. Instructor Kass Martin describes the range of benefits Zumba classes have to offer:
If You’re New to Zumba, Exercise a Little Caution
Just like any other new exercise or sport, there are a few precautions you should take to minimize your risk for injury. Manhattan physical therapist Luke Bongiorno reports seeing a number of Zumba injuries at his sports medicine clinic, with ankle sprains, pulled hamstrings, and calf injuries being the most common. In order to make sure you avoid injury, here’s some advice from the experts about how to do Zumba correctly.
First of all, make sure you’re wearing appropriate shoes. Any thin-soled sneakers or comfortable workout shoes will do. Avoid running shoes, which tend to have thick treads, as they are designed for forward movement only. The treads get in your way when doing Zumba’s many side-to-side and pivoting movements. Instructors recommend shock-absorbent cross-trainers with sufficient ankle support, which helps you pivot easily without sticking to the floor.
The most common reason people drop out or get hurt is because they start too fast. According to Mr. Bongiorno, Zumba tends to attract people who’ve been sedentary for some time and are relatively out of shape. The classes get off to a fast start with minimal warm-up, moving quickly into side-to-side and rotating hip movements, spins, and shimmies. These complex movement sequences can be challenging for beginners, and slips are commonplace. Experts advise that you move at your own pace, and avoid getting too caught up in the whirlwind around you. Have fun, but be mindful about your body and surroundings so that you don’t accidentally injure yourself.
Tips from a Zumba Master
- Let Loose: Zumba is all about having fun and joining the party, which is hard to do if you’re stiff or self-conscious. The best way to optimize your workout is to let go, have fun, and try not to think too much.
- Maximize Arm Movement. During the moves, be sure to fully extend your arms, which boosts your energy expenditure and engages more muscles. “It’s not that tricky and you can do a lot for your body by lengthening, raising, and extending with oomph,” Boyer says.
- Move Up and Down More. When your instructor takes you through a “level change,” try it out. All that up and down movement will not only boost your burn, it will also get your glutes, hips, and thigh muscles firing even more. Sit into your moves, bend your knees, and move in as many dimensions as you can.
- Work Your Body. Boyer says, “There’s always a lot of booty shaking in Zumba! Just shake it—and shake it good!” Pressing through your heels as often as possible helps maximize those glute benefits.
- Rock the Moves You Know. It’s okay if you haven’t mastered every move—just use the ones you’ve got. If you love the salsa step or the shimmy, make the most of it! Feel free to add your own flair to the movements, and you’ll pick up other moves over time.
Tips for Building a High-Quality Fitness Program
If you choose to do Zumba or any other fitness class, it should be part of an overall fitness program that incorporates intense interval exercise, core strengthening, proper stretching, stress reduction, restorative sleep, and good nutrition. You’ll learn much more about how to put together a safe and effective program for yourself in the fitness section of my website, but here are a few basics to consider:
- Stand up as much as possible. Compelling research now tells us that prolonged sitting can have a tremendously detrimental impact on your health, even if you exercise regularly. Your body needs to interact with gravity in order to function properly, and this must be ongoing, throughout your day. Whenever you have a chance to move your body, do so! If your job requires sitting for extended periods of time, I invite you to look at our list of 30 videos for ideas to break up your sitting. Getting a stand-up desk may be ideal for many office workers. Ideally, you’ll want to avoid sitting as much as possible.
- Walk 7,000-10,000 steps per day. I recommend getting yourself a fitness tracker, and make it a point to get more walking into your day. Remember these steps are in addition to your exercise program not in place of it. Researchers actually refer to walking as NEA or non-exercise activity. It is only recently appreciated that NEAs are every bit, if not more important than regular exercise.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: Interval training involves alternating short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods, and are central to my Peak Fitness routine.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and improve your balance and stability. Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls “Modern Moveology,” which consists of a catalog of exercises.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). With AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body’s natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch. Yoga is also another effective strategy if done properly.