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American Heart Month! Group Exercise—Is It Safe?

February is American Heart Month and it’s almost impossible to think about heart health without thinking about exercise. No one can question the role of exercise in preventing many heart conditions and improving heart health. The American Heart Association states that “the simplest, positive change you can make to effectively improve your heart health is to start walking.” While genetics play a role, there are so many factors and conditions that can be controlled.

A recent conversation with a newly retired friend prompted me to think less about the role of exercise in preventing heart disease, but more about the role of exercise in improving health and slowing the progression, once a person has been diagnosed.

After a few health scares, my friend has decided to make some lifestyle choices. He is obese, sedentary, has high blood pressure, high cholesterol and at high risk for heart attack and stroke. He has a family history of heart disease and has already been diagnosed with COPD.

He hired a personal trainer at a local club and has begun a routine of resistance training three times a week. The exercise prescription he shared seemed sound and sensible and based on extensive assessments. What I was more concerned about was that to incorporate cardiovascular exercise, the trainer recommended my friend take 2 group exercise classes per week. He didn’t get any guidance as to which classes would be safest and most appropriate, but was told to “find something he enjoyed.”

My friend seemed to select classes that had great instructors who monitored the participants and their intensity. So far, so good, and he’s having a blast. I started thinking about how challenging it must be to monitor an entire class, keeping everyone safe, in a group exercise environment.

I’d love to hear from all of you— what are your thoughts about such a “high risk” person attending group exercise classes? What are some tips and tricks group exercise instructors can do to keep everyone safe—especially in a large class. I’ve attended classes that I found to be potentially dangerous and needed to monitor my own intensity and modify moves. But how does a beginning exerciser know how to do this?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


And FYI—W.I.T.S. is running a fabulous special this month on our online group exercise continuing education courses. Call and ask about the February promotions and special discounts! Great membership discounts as well! 888-330-9487


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3 thoughts on “American Heart Month! Group Exercise—Is It Safe?

  1. Great topic! This is some great food for thought. I never really thought of Group Ex classes being possibly ‘unsafe’ but I can see how it can be for higher risk lifestyles. It is true that with certain classes, especially some of the popular ones, focusing on a group instead of an individual can be difficult because the instructor may miss something. I know the level of intensity and the level of the person would be helpful to decide on what a person should take for a class, but I know myself I would just look into whatever sounded fun and I have attended some sessions before and didn’t even take that part into consideration.

    I would think that for the popular classes, especially as a beginner class, having 2 ‘instructors’ available. A senior instructor may assume people automatically know the class to dive right in, but some people may not know and may not want to say anything to avoid embarrassment which can lead to issues down the line. Maybe one in charge of the class in full and another ensuring people are correctly attempting the exercise positions at hand and basically overseeing the group in it’s entirety to look out for any individual warning signs during the session itself. It may seem tedious, but anything can happen at anytime if they appear to have high risk attendees. It may sound like common sense,but ensuring the instructor has reviews on how to properly execute the routines and give a demonstration on how the particular session will run in itself can also help the class from complications and keep everyone safe.

  2. Thank you, Bonnie. Those are great suggestions!! I imagine in some cases, it may be cost-prohibitive to have two instructors—but if the class is specifically geared for higher risk participants–then the extra instructor should be required! Great input! Thanks!

  3. As a manager of a Group Ex program as well as an instructor, I stress saftey as the utmost importance. As management, I do this through my search and screen process for instructors (I.e.auditions) but also through regular staff evaluations.
    When looking for new talent to join my team, I am looking for instructors who have either a degree in the field of Kinesiology or hold a primary certification in group ex (ACSM, ACE, AFAA, etc.). If an instructor is interested in teaching a specialty format such as TRX, Zumba, Insanity, they must also hold a certificate of completion in this area. Then during auditions I have a specific rubric in which I use to evaluate candidates that looks at “adherence to industry standards for safety”, “demonstrates modifications”, “receptive and responsive to participants”, etc. I am looking for an instructor who is dynamic, energetic, but is able to provide a safe and effective class for all levels of fitness. I am particular, but for reasons addressed in this post.
    As far as evaluations, I conduct these every 4-6 months for each instructor. Some of the same criteria used for auditions is also reviewed at this process. The process includes: evaluation by supervisor (class videotaped), self evaluation (view video), and discussion of strengths, concerns and deficiencies related to the content. The process is lengthy, but it allows me to ensure the quality of my program.
    Because of the inherent danger in working with such a diverse group of people, instructors must purposeful and present in each class they teach.

    As an instructor, I do not single out new people but make an announcement to the group at the start of each class ” This class is moderate to high intensity; however I will provide modifications for exercises as we go along. Chose appropriately and listen to your body. I will be walking around periodically to assist. Take breaks as needed and do not feel obligated to do everything. Most importantly, have fun!” This usually hopes the door for people to “opt out” of certain parts of the class they do not feel comfortable doing. Then I just make sure I follow through by proving options/ choices, encourage them to do their best, monitor by scanning the group, and ask for verbal feedback on how they are doing (I.e. talk test). This is always a good place to educate on how it should feel so they can learn to self regulate in and outside of the class.

    All aside, their is still responsibility on the individual. Realistically, will all of their contraindications they should consult their physician on whether specific types of exercise are safe for them or maybe should have clarified with their trainer on which classes he/she recommends. Or perhaps he should have been referred to an execise physiologist who specializes in exercise prescription for this population. Instructors are only one part of this equation. There has to be accountability for the clients decisions and actions that are outside of what was recommended by his healthcare team.

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