I nearly skipped my exercise class the other day. No real reason—I wasn’t ill, my workout clothes weren’t in the laundry, I wasn’t trapped in one of those three-hour windows during which the cable guy might show up. I was just a little cranky, and antsy about a looming deadline. It was freezing outside—a cruel slip of the mercury after a sundress-and-sandal-worthy weekend. Going AWOL from my workout meant I could spend the morning working in the toasty warmth of my house, feeling productive, cozy, content.
Except I knew I would be anything but content if I blew off class. I wouldn’t feel guilty about neglecting my cardio health, or worry that skipping a workout would be a death sentence for my waistline. I doubted my frugal self would fret about the fact that I’d already paid. It just so happens that this particular exercise class—a hip-hop dance class that I take three times a week—is also one of the richest sources of happiness in my life.
The un-hedonic treadmill
Now, if you consider your fitness routine to be a chore, a bore, (or worse—it hurts, you hate it), you may find it hard to understand how I could derive flat-out elation from muscle-challenging, sweat-inducing physical exertion. Cynics may even sniff, “Of course you feel good after class: It’s the endorphins, stupid.” True, plenty of research shows that exercise triggers the release of mood-lifting brain chemicals. I feel pretty darn good after a workout with a trainer, too, even though I wince every time he makes me do something like hop from side-to-side over a block of wood. But the effect on my mood, both during and after, doesn’t come close to my beloved dance class.
My emotions are affected in a vastly different way by the two mainstays of my fitness regimen: One leaves me feeling good afterwards, even if I don’t always enjoy it; the other has me pumped from the minute I step onto the floor until hours later, when I crank up whatever song we’re working on and dance it out in the kitchen (causing my kids to run screaming from the room!). I wondered what it is about hip-hop that brings me such glee, and how those things might be helpful for anyone in search of fitness bliss. Here’s what I came up with:
The fun factor
I’ve always gravitated toward dance-y activities: ballet in college; in my twenties, an addictive aerobics class on the Upper West side of Manhattan that had me prancing around in Reeboks and leg-warmers like a Rockette; highly choreographed step classes after having my first kid. I’m not alone: Zumba is the largest fitness brand in the world, according to BusinessInsider.com. WERQ (dance workouts that, like Zumba, are taught by certified pros) are popping up in health clubs and other fitness facilities nationwide. (There’s even a class in Manhattan that teaches Beyonce routines!)
Studies have found that when you find an activity enjoyable, you’re more likely to commit to it, so the fact that I straight-up love moving to music has lots to do with my commitment to hip-hop. “The first thing I talk about with women who want to start an exercise program is finding something they want to do,” says Jennifer Huberty, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University and founder of FitMinded, a woman’s book club designed to promote physical activity. “I suggest approaching it like speed-dating: Try as many things as you can until you find something that clicks.”
My hip-hop family
I’ve been in class with many of the same people for five years. We have a Facebook page, meet up for drinks, swap recipes and send flowers when a member loses a loved one. Looking forward to seeing folks I’ve grown fond of definitely motivates me. “Social support is a key facilitator of physical activity,” agrees Huberty. That doesn’t mean your exercise mates need to be your best friends. Even if you’re in a room full of strangers, you can draw on their energy and enthusiasm. You may even get a better workout, depending on who you sweat with: A recent study published in the Journal of Social Sciences found that when people exercised with someone they considered more fit than themselves, they worked harder.
An amazing teacher
My class wouldn’t exist without our teacher, Angel Williams. Angel’s approach to teaching is to treat us like professional dancers rehearsing for a big performance. Her verbal flair and ability to evoke mental images helps us understand how we should move our bodies. And finally, she has an incredibly compelling personal story: Angel was seriously overweight when she began teaching hip-hop at our local YMCA in 2004; in that time she’s overcome a lot of prejudice about her size, has gone from a size 26 to a 10 (and is fast approaching her 6-to-8 goal), and is now in business for herself. Because Angel inspires us so much, we want to do our best for her. If you’re into group exercise, an instructor who inspires and entertains can definitely make the workout more enjoyable.
In class, Angel demands that we check our everyday identities and inhibitions at the door, and forget that we have desk jobs and families, problems and responsibilities. It’s a liberating mindset. I’m thrilled to find that I can make my body move in ways that I would never have thought possible. As a white mom of four living in the suburbs, I hardly have a natural knack for urban dance! It’s an exhilarating accomplishment to master the intricate choreography that Angel dreams up. My friend Deb summed it up perfectly: “It’s like therapy. On the dance floor I’m no longer a mom, a wife, a creative director—I’m a woman. I can appreciate and challenge my body rather than nitpick and notice the flaws. I don’t even notice it’s exercise—it’s joy, power, sexuality, childhood, anger, freedom, storytelling. The fact that it’s a damn good workout is secondary.”