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Group Exercise Instruction: More Than Aerobic Dance

Riebe, Deborah A. Ph.D., FACSM

doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000422569.55483.7d
COLUMNS: ACSM Certification

Group Exercise Instruction: More Than Aerobic Dance.

Deborah A. Riebe, Ph.D., FACSM, is a professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Riebe is a past president of the New England Chapter of ACSM and is the current chair of ACSM’s Committee on Certification and Registry Boards. Her research focuses on promoting physical activity in special populations, with an emphasis on obesity and aging.

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest and does not have any financial disclosures.



As a child, I remember seeing my grandmother watch Jack LaLanne teach exercise on television (yes, I do mean “watch”). Many years later, I taught some of the same moves in aerobic dance classes using music tapes that I made myself because there was no commercial music available. From Jazzercise to aerobic dance and step aerobics to spinning, group exercise classes have come a long way and remain an important part of the health and fitness industry. Today, group exercise classes are safer and more effective than ever because of better training and education of the fitness professionals leading the classes.

Group exercise still includes traditional music-based aerobic dance classes but now also reflects any activity that leads a group of people through any type of exercise. Yoga, interval training, aquatics, and walking or cycling groups are just a few examples of group exercise. In 2011, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) created a certification for the group exercise instructor (GEI), defining a GEI as a fitness professional who works in a group exercise setting with apparently healthy individuals and those with health challenges who are able to exercise independently to enhance quality of life, improve health-related physical fitness, manage health risk, and promote lasting health behavior change. The GEI leads safe and effective exercise programs using a variety of leadership techniques to foster group camaraderie, support, and motivation to enhance muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, body composition, and any of the motor skills related to the domains of health-related physical fitness.

Some exercise professionals may not picture themselves teaching group exercise classes because they narrowly define group exercise as “aerobic dance,” and this style of movement is not suitable for everyone. Not only are there many other forms of group exercise, GEIs develop important skills that are transferable to other aspects of the field. For example, a current trend in the health and fitness field is for personal training to be conducted in small groups. Working in small groups is challenging because the fitness professional is responsible for helping each individual reach his or her goal while creating a positive group dynamic. The same skills that are developed for teaching group exercise can now be applied to personal training! Consider the following aspects of group exercise instruction and how they relate to other areas of the health and fitness profession.

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Communication skills are an essential part of teaching group exercise, and these skills easily transfer to management, marketing, and public relations. Good communication is the foundation of successful relationships. Your ability to communicate with patients, clients, colleagues, employees, and members of the community will increase your chance for success in the health and fitness industry. Communication skills honed while teaching group exercise may help you to speak to community groups about the importance of exercise or speak more effectively to physicians as you market your Exercise is Medicine® credentials for patient referrals.

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Compared with the other credentials ACSM offers, the GEI credential is unique in that the predominant knowledge and skills domain is leadership, tipping the scale at 55% of the job tasks. Directing and motivating a group of people in a fair and equitable manner are skills that can aid every health fitness professional at some point in his or her career. For example, GEIs 1) learn to reduce boredom without being overly complex; 2) motivate and include all participants to create a community; and 3) offer modifications, progressions, and regressions to keep the group safe and educated. They are multitasking mavens with sharp focus and agile mental aptitudes — able to change a plan in a moment’s notice to accommodate the needs of the group.

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GEIs have well-developed teaching strategies and are skilled at cueing for both safety and exercise technique. Although participants exercise as part of a group, strong teaching skills make them feel as if they have individual attention. As group personal training becomes more and more popular, it is essential for other health and fitness professionals to develop the teaching skills necessary to work with more than one person at a time. Groups are made up of individuals who are gathered together for a common purpose. The purpose of a group is to gain ideas and motivation from one another and attempt to work toward the desired goal — becoming more healthy and fit. The main goal of an effective small group is to accomplish the common purpose.

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In today’s economy, employers often require that fitness professionals be able to effectively work in more than one aspect of the field. Hybrid positions might require someone to teach group exercise classes and also be a personal trainer. Being trained and certified in more than one aspect of the health and fitness industry can make you more marketable and valuable to employers.

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Individuals who work in the health and fitness industry are passionate about encouraging people to become physically active and spreading the word about the importance of regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle. GEIs touch more people than any other exercise professional. Whereas personal trainers work with one person or small groups, GEIs rarely teach classes to less than 10 individuals and often the classes are much larger. GEIs truly have the ability to impact many people’s lives.

Grace Desimone, B.A., is the national group fitness director for Plus One Health Management, chair of the Committee for Certification and Registry Board’s GEI subcommittee, and editor of ACSM’s Resources for the Group Exercise Instructor (1). According to Grace, “In every exercise group, there is a handful of participants who bravely attend sessions with the hope they won’t be seen. They stand as close to the back wall or exit door as they possibly can. The expertise shared by the ACSM-GEI credential and ACSM’s Resources for the Group Exercise Instructor (1) will serve you to see, reach, and bring the back row to the head of the class. The GEI credential recognizes the fitness professionals who touch more lives in a single hour than any other fitness pro. Whether you teach boot camp, lead a walking club, or teach a dance-based cardio salsa class, you have the future of the world in your hands.”

GEIs are an important part of the health and fitness industry and make significant contributions toward helping ACSM achieve the goal of promoting physical activity among people of all ages, interests, and ability levels. The knowledge and skills possessed by these professionals reach beyond the ability to teach safe and effective classes. Other exercise professionals should consider enhancing their professional skills and increasing career opportunities by learning to teach group exercise and becoming an ACSM-certified GEI.

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1. Desimone G, editor. ACSM’s Resources for the Group Exercise Instructor. Baltimore (MD): Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; 2012.
© 2012 American College of Sports Medicine.