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Sportaerobics: The Sport and Its Athletes

Vehrs, Pat R. Ph.D., FACSM; Kaiser, David Ed.D., ATC

ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: May-June 2004 - Volume 8 - Issue 3 - p 16-20
Features: CEC Self-test

Learning Objective To increase the awareness of sportaerobics and its athletes and to make recommendations on how the fitness practitioner can become involved in this Olympic sport.

This article reviews Sportaerobics and its athletes and gives recommendations for the involvement of health and fitness professionals in the sport.

Pat Vehrs, Ph.D., FACSM, is an associate professor in exercise physiology at Brigham Young University where his research focuses upon the assessment of cardiovascular fitness and body composition.

David Kaiser, Ed.D., ATC, is an associate professor and program coordinator of athletic training at Brigham Young University where his research focuses upon athletic training administration and clinical education issues. He also is conducting studies in dance injuries and dance medicine.

Sportaerobics athletes create an energetic blend of strength, flexibility, and endurance in a routine set to music (Figure 1). Sportaerobics is a competitive alternative for children, adolescents, and adults. Compared with more traditional sports, information about sportaerobics is not well publicized. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to increase awareness of the sport and its athletes and to provide suggestions as to how qualified health and fitness professionals might become involved in the sport.

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History of Sportaerobics

Since the 1960s, aerobic exercise has been promoted as a form of physical activity to increase cardiovascular fitness. Aerobics classes have since become a popular way to engage in aerobic exercise designed to improve cardiovascular fitness by repeating combinations of dynamic movements. Aerobics has evolved from the simple dance movements of the late 1960s to a highly competitive event. The first aerobics competition was held in 1983 in Los Angeles. World Championships attract athletes from nearly 20 countries, and more than 39 countries currently hold annual National Aerobic Championships. Sportaerobics competitions also are part of the annual World Games. At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Federation Internationale Gymnastique (FIG) announced its adoption of sportaerobics as a new discipline of gymnastics. The date of its Olympic debut has not been set. As sportaerobics increases in world-wide popularity, health and fitness professionals will have opportunities to prepare and train sportaerobics athletes for all levels (local, regional, national, and international) of competition.

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Sportaerobic Performances

Sportaerobics is a 1:40 to 1:50 minute judged performance of choreographed elements. An element is a movement that has three components: 1) entry, 2) action, and 3) exit. The entry is the manner in which the athlete begins the action, for example, a one- or two-foot take-off. The action may be a leap, jump, or turn. The exit refers to the landing after the action. The "straddle jump to pushup" element, for example, begins with a one- or two-foot take-off (entry), followed by an airborne straddle jump (action), and ends with a push-up landing. There are four general categories of elements (Table 1), and the difficulty of each element is rated on a scale between A through F, with A elements being the easiest and F elements being the most difficult. The number and type of elements that can be performed varies with the level of competition. The published set of rules and regulations contains a complete list of elements (1). There also are more than 30 movements including those that have been prohibited because of an increased risk of injury (1).

Table 1

Table 1

Figure 1

Figure 1

A panel of judges score a competitive routine based on following three criteria:

  • Technical merit (45%) includes execution, intensity, and a balance of strength, flexibility, and coordination.
  • Artistic merit (45%) includes choreography, musicality, showmanship, and synchronicity (in mixed pairs and trios).
  • Degree of difficulty (10%) is based on predetermined difficulty rating for each of the elements (i.e., A = 0.1, and F = 0.6).
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Sportaerobics Competitions

There are five divisions of competitive sportaerobics.

  • The Club Cup is a beginner level, follow-the-leader competition in which participants are judged on their ability to follow an instructor in a pre-choreographed routine. Club Cup competitions are held in local health clubs and are the grass roots of sportaerobics.
  • The Youth division has three levels: junior (ages 7-10 years), junior varsity (ages 11-13 years), and varsity (ages 14-17 years). Separate rules and regulations apply to the youth division. The first youth competition in the United States was held in 1999. There are currently youth divisions in the National and World Sportaerobic Championships.
  • The Class II and Master's (35 and older) divisions represent the intermediate level of competition. Both divisions are restricted to individual men's and women's categories and level A, B, and C elements.
  • Class I athletes are considered the elite division of the sport and includes males and females 18 years of age or older competing individually, in mixed pairs, or trios. Class I athletes may perform elements from all six levels of elements (A through F) (Figure 2).
  • Figure 2

    Figure 2

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The Sportaerobics Athletes and Facilities

Although some sportaerobics athletes have prior experience in gymnastics or dance, many become involved in sportaerobics by participating in aerobics classes and Club Cup competitions. In the United States, there is little financial incentive and support for individual athletes. The cost of training, performing, music, costumes, and travel are incurred by each athlete and may cost thousands of dollars.

There are no official training centers for adult sportaerobics athletes in the United States. Athletes do most of their training in local gyms but often travel to receive specialized training and coaching. Sportaerobics is a flourishing sport in some foreign countries where greater emphasis is placed on world and Olympic sports. Foreign countries tend to provide more incentives, support, and advanced training facilities and programs for sportaerobics athletes. Sportaerobics is a viable alternative to gymnastics, martial arts, dance, or other sports for children and adolescents. Many facilities in the United States that have youth gymnastics programs now include sportaerobics programs. This provides a structured and supervised environment for youth to receive instruction and training.

The only official education program for sportaerobics athletes is "Champ Camp," which is held in conjunction with the annual U.S. National Aerobic Championships. Champ Camp includes comprehensive workshops for all levels of athletes taught by leading authorities in the field, including past and current sportaerobics champions. Champ Camp was instituted on the premise that athletes can improve physical and mental preparation and safety right up to the time of a competitive event.

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Injuries in Sportaerobics

There are no published reports on the incidence of injuries specific to sportaerobics. As with any sport, injuries occur during training as well as during competition. In a survey of 77 regional sportaerobics champions at a U.S. National Aerobics Championship, only 17 athletes reported having no sportaerobics-related injuries. The remaining 60 athletes (78%) self-reported 100 injuries to the legs and ankle (61%), shoulder (11%), spine/neck (16%), wrist/hands/elbow (12%) while participating in noncompetitive aerobics classes as a participant or instructor. An additional 30 injuries were reported to have occurred during competitive performances, 24 of which were to the hand, elbow, and shoulders. Most injuries to the hands, arms, and shoulders during competition can be attributed to landing from an airborne or standing position. Injuries in sportaerobics are similar to those of gymnastics where the upper extremities are used to bear weight.

Injuries in sportaerobics can be attributed to repetitive stress syndrome or impact forces. More injuries are reported by aerobics instructors than those participating in aerobics classes. The high incidence of injuries in sportaerobic athletes is probably related to the type of movements as well as duration, frequency, and intensity of training. The vertical impact forces of landing from standing or airborne elements are greater than those reported for running or aerobics step classes. Compared with other joints, the joints of the upper extremities are relatively small, have less supportive tissue, are less able to absorb impact forces, and are therefore more susceptible to injury.

Inclusion of children and adolescents in competitive sports often raises questions regarding the safety and efficacy of physical conditioning, strength training, and sport-specific training. Even though physical conditioning in children and adolescents is safe and effective when recommended guidelines are followed, intense training during periods of rapid growth may make the young athlete more susceptible to injury. Compared with adults, injuries to the growth plates of the long bones are more likely to occur in growing athletes (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Because of the contribution of artistic merit to a judge's score, some consider sportaerobics a "weight control" sport similar to gymnastics and some disciplines of dance. During periods of rapid growth, it is important for young athletes to avoid under-nutrition. If an energy deficit persists, there is a potential risk of compromising growth and maturation (2, 3).

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Health and Fitness Professionals in Sportaerobics

As the popularity of sportaerobics continues to grow, qualified health and fitness professionals can become valued members of a team approach to providing safe and effective training programs and education. An effective team may include registered dietitians, gymnastic coaches, choreographers, sports medicine practitioners, chiropractors, physical therapists, and certified athletic trainers. The team approach increases credibility as a health and fitness professional and provides better service. Here are eight suggestions for your team:

  • Familiarize yourself with the sport. Rules and regulations are the basis for all routines. Observing competitions should be the first objective of any health and fitness professional to understand the physical demands of the sport. Information about sportaerobics is available on various web sites (Table 2). Be a resource for information on a variety of topics ranging from alternative training methods, injury prevention and treatment, sports nutrition, stress management, and relaxation techniques. By attending conferences and workshops, the health and fitness professional can become a resource of information. Your team can provide in-service training to local facilities that run youth programs.
  • Table 2

    Table 2

  • Implement injury prevention strategies. These are a key element in developing safe and effective training programs. Provide training assistance only in the areas in which you specialize or have training. Emphasize biomechanically correct training. Develop a balance between strength and flexibility of all muscle groups and joints. Reduce or eliminate unnecessary impact during training by practicing elements in a safe environment such as a gymnastics pit or on a spring-loaded floor. Encourage athletes to maintain a traveling medical file to ensure that practitioners at competitions maintain a consistent quality of care and that new needs are addressed as they arise. Prevent chronic injuries by properly rehabilitating acute injuries.
  • Develop effective training routines. Sportaerobics athletes need to develop muscular strength and endurance, core strength, joint flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, anaerobic endurance, power, and balance. An initial emphasis on overall fitness rather than performance builds a foundation for a safe and effective training program and the eventual acquisition of sport-specific skills and techniques. This is particularly true for children, adolescents, and new participants who are just beginning physical conditioning. Balance and coordination should be built into a training program. Include both static and dynamic flexibility training (Figure 4).
  • Figure 4

    Figure 4

  • Carefully apply the principal of progression. Some training methods (e.g., strength training, flexibility, plyometrics, pilates, and yoga) are often new to some athletes, so careful attention should be dedicated to proper technique and progression of training. Weight lifting can be used to build a foundation of strength in specific muscle groups before transitioning to the use of elements or parts of elements for specific strength training. If the difficulty of the elements are too advanced, begin with simple movements and progress to more difficult and complex movements. For example, progress from a two-arm, two-leg pushup to a two-arm, one-leg pushup, to a one-arm, two-leg pushup, and finally to a one-arm, one-leg pushup. Progression of training needs to optimize performance at the right time and prevent classic overuse injuries.
  • Incorporate fitness assessments into your training programs. Results of fitness assessments are the basis for an effective training program. Assess each of the components of health-related (flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and body composition) and sport-specific (anaerobic endurance, power, balance, coordination, and agility) physical fitness. Assess the flexibility and strength of the upper and lower body. Repeat fitness assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of a training program and the compliance of the participant.
  • Help athletes prepare for competition. Sportaerobics athletes can prepare for a competitive event by practicing in similar surroundings to the actual competition. Prepare athletes to adjust their sleeping and eating patterns to accommodate the performance schedule and change in time zones. As athletes advance through quarter- and semi-finals, they may rehearse and compete several times per day. Likewise, an athlete who competes in an individual competition as well as a member of a pair or trio should be prepared for an increased number of rehearsals and performances.
  • Be aware of unhealthy dietary practices. Some dietary practices do not support the energy needs of training and competition. As a showmanship sport, many sportaerobics athletes try to reduce weight and body fat. Although training and competitions require large amounts of energy, some athletes may inappropriately reduce caloric intake during the later phases of training and competition. Registered dietitians who are familiar with sports nutrition can advise athletes on dietary practices.
  • Include youth. The health and fitness professional can educate the young athlete, parents, and those running youth programs about sportaerobics as an alternative to dance, martial arts, gymnastics, and contact sports. Be familiar with developmental physiology, responses to acute bouts of exercise, and the expected adaptations to various types of training. Adhere to published recommendations for physical conditioning and strength development (4-7) and injury prevention (8, 9) in children and adolescents. Work with parents, youth program administrators, family physicians, pediatricians, and dietitians in making sound recommendations to young athletes and their families.
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Sportaerobics has emerged from simple aerobic dance steps to a high-intensity world class Olympic sport. The number of participants in this sport is increasing world-wide and includes adult men and women of various ages as well as youth between the ages of 7 and 17 years. Sportaerobics athletes have diverse training and competitive backgrounds, and their knowledge and expertise in the exercise and nutritional sciences varies. They are, for the most part, self-taught and -trained. The health and fitness professional can contribute to the development of sportaerobics athletics and can best prepare to meet the needs of this group of athletes through familiarization with the sport and its regulations; appropriate academic training in the exercise, nutritional, and behavioral sciences; training or experience in gymnastics or other related sports; and using a multi-disciplinary team approach to meeting the needs of the athlete.

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Condensed Version and Bottom Line

Sportaerobics is increasing in popularity world-wide. This unique group of athletes is Olympic bound. Because of the nature of the sport, sportaerobics athletes are susceptible to acute and chronic repetitive stress and impact-related injuries. The inclusion of children and adolescents in this sport necessitates a greater breadth and depth of knowledge and abilities for the fitness practitioner. The wide range of ages and experience of those participating in sportaerobics creates opportunities for health and fitness professionals to be a valued member of a team of professionals involved in the education, training, and care of sportaerobics athletes.

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1. United States Competitive Aerobics Federation. Common Rules 2002, Sportaerobics Rules and Regulations. USA: Association of National Aerobic Championships and International Aerobic Federation, 2002.
2. Roemmich, J.N., R.J. Richmond, and A.D. Rogol. Consequences of sport training during puberty. Journal of Endocrinology Investigation 24(9):708-715, 2001.
3. Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics 106(1):154-157, 2000.
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5. Faigenbaum, A.D. Strength training for children and adolescents. Pediatric and Adolescent Sports Injuries 19(4), 593-619, 2000.
6. Totten, L. Practical considerations in strengthening the prepubescent athlete. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 8(2):38-40, 1986.
7. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee of School Health. Organized sports for children and pre-adolescents. Pediatrics 107(6):1459-1462, 2001.
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Sportaerobics; Aerobics; Fitness; Training; Children

© 2004 American College of Sports Medicine