Zumba was born in Colombia in the 1990s, quite by accident. A fitness instructor forgot to bring his usual workout music to class, so he grabbed some Latin albums from his car, ditched the constraints of a traditional workout and danced just like he would at a club. His class followed along, sweating to the salsa and rumba beats, and loving it.
Since then, Zumba has pitched itself as more of a party than a workout. Indeed, some research suggests it may be the very best workout for people who hate to exercise.
People worked hard in the class, too. “We found that they exercised at about 80% of maximum heart rate, and 60% V02 max,” which is a measure of oxygen used during exercise, he says. “We found it’s a pretty good workout—similar to moderately intense exercises like step aerobics or cardio kickboxing.”
But the most impressive part of Zumba is how much it appeals to people who stay away from exercise. A study in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that when women with type 2 diabetes and obesity did Zumba three times a week for 16 weeks, they lost an average of 2.5 pounds and lowered their percentage of body fat by 1%. More importantly, the women enjoyed the class so much that they made it a habit—very unusual for an aerobic exercise program. “After the study had ended, most the participants continued going,” says study coauthor Jamie Cooper, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “It seems like most of them had fun, made friends and didn’t see Zumba as hard work.”
It’s not hard to see why the activity would be invigorating and freeing. “You have to let go and have fun during Zumba,” Cooper says. Just as some people with anxiety take improv classes to relieve their social skittishness, dancing around other people may help Zumba-goers feel less shy or self-conscious about their bodies.