Step Aerobics? TaeBo? How Fitness Has (And Hasn’t) Changed Over 30 Years

February 16, 2023 By McGregor McCance, McGregor McCance,

Three decades ago, when many of the parents of today’s University of Virginia students were in college, step aerobics was the hot fitness class over at Memorial Gym.

In these sessions, a leader would pop a cassette tape into a boom box and take a group through a choreographed workout that involved stepping up and down on a plastic step hundreds of times in different ways that felt like a 60-minute dance routine.

“Step was all the rage,” recalled Erica K. Perkins, executive director of UVA Intramural-Recreational Sports.

She would know. Perkins taught fitness classes and conducted certification training across the state at the time. With demand surging for exercises classes, she participated an initial meeting among counterparts from UVA, Virginia Tech and James Madison University in 1994 to share ways to choreograph step sessions and “hi-lo” aerobics.

Both the fitness craze and the group that formed at that initial meeting boomed in following years. What began as a gathering with 75 participant returns to its founding university this month for its 30th iteration. The Southeast Collegiate Fitness Expo will welcome nearly 500 students and fitness professionals from 32 institutions to Grounds for a three-day training and continuing education symposium.

UVA Today caught up Perkins to talk about the evolution of fitness and what, if any, steps have changed for those interested in improving health and wellbeing through exercise.

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Portrait of Erica Perkins
Erica Perkins, executive director of Intramural-Recreational Sports, was there for the inaugural Southeast Collegiate Fitness Expo at UVA years ago and will participate in the 30th edition this weekend. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Q. What were the popular group fitness offerings when this expo was launched 30 years ago?

A. The 1990s saw an explosion of exercise formats, including step classes, TaeBo (a combination of high-intensity cardio, martial arts and hip-hop moves), and the launch of indoor cycling, among others. “Aerobics” schedules had many varieties of step classes such as step-and-strength, double step, super step, step circuits and more. Class formats, then and now, focus on the same foundational ideas: fun and energizing workouts that get the blood pumping and build a sense of community and camaraderie.

Q. What’s popular today?

A. Many of today’s formats are simply re-invented or rebranded versions with more equipment options available and the integration of technology. High-intensity interval training remains popular. These classes have been called HIIT, boot camp, sports conditioning and many other combination names over the years, but they are fundamentally the same – alternating high-intensity exercises with less-intense movements, balancing hard work with active recovery. Strength-based classes using equipment and body weight as well as indoor cycle also remain popular today at UVA, which aligns with current world trends.

Q. What are some of the fitness approaches today that weren’t around then?

A. Product and equipment development for homes and commercial venues lead the growth and offer variety to traditional exercises. For example, doing a squat on a “Bosu” ball versus on the floor holding dumbbells incorporates balance elements, making the movement more challenging. Resistance bands, barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, disc sliders and foam rollers are some of the many tools available today to adjust traditional movements. This helps challenge muscles differently and prevent exercise burnout. 

The evolution of technology enables interactive experiences that are live or virtual, including real-time statistics to assess progress, sound and lighting enhancements during the classes as well as registration and communication capabilities for the participants and the instructors.   

Q. What are some ways that serving fitness and wellness needs have changed?

A. It is fully realized that exercise is preventative medicine and an integral part of one’s total wellness. There is better understanding that exercise is anything that moves, strengthens and stretches the body for an extended period of time most days of the week. It is now expected that individuals leading exercise for groups or individuals are educated, trained and certified to lead people through fitness activities. These individuals work with multi-disciplinary teams to help people balance all dimensions of wellness, not just exercise and the physical dimension alone. 

Q. What hasn’t changed?   

A. The concept of moving to music using body weight or equipment has always been a popular choice of exercise, but the style of the class can vary greatly. Class formats continue to be repackaged and rebranded by changing one or more elements and presented as “new.”   Jazzercise was the pioneer of integrating dance and exercise movements in 1969, and in the 1990s, Zumba was born, which integrates Latin dance styles. Both formats are still popular.

Q. Is it easier to get and stay fit today compared to 30 years ago?   

A. If you do not grow up in a family that is active, it can be intimidating to get started, but the options today far exceed what existed 30 years ago. Convenience and time continue to be the top barriers to exercise for individuals and many classes and programs offer options for “express” workouts to minimize this barrier.

Exercise options have never been as plentiful as they are now, but the fundamentals have not changed: We need a combination of cardio, strength and flexibility training each week for a minimum of 150 minutes to decrease disease risk. There are endless possibilities, but people gravitate to what they enjoy doing and who they enjoy doing it with, whether it is trending today or many years ago.

‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan
‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan

Q. How have things like mindfulness come into play?   

A. Mindfulness has always been a part of exercise and fitness as connecting with your body can focus, soothe and energize your mind. It, too, has been referred to by different names, such as visualization, meditation, contemplation and more. Regardless of the name, being mindful has more emphasis today because of the increased stimuli we face constantly compared to 30 years ago. We receive notifications through so many platforms and with so many mediums seeking our attention, one must be intentional about quieting the mind to focus or recharge.

Q. Has the equipment become better or different?  

A. Exercise equipment is more abundant today for all forms of exercise – cardio, strength and flexibility. With more products, there is more variety, which helps activate muscles in different ways and prevent workout boredom. For example, throwing or slamming a weighted ball provides an element of strength training called plyometrics, which incorporates speed and power. The equipment available today for group fitness is not necessarily better than what we started with (dumbbells and barbells), it just provides additional options to stimulate and challenge the body than we had before. For stationary cardio and strength equipment, safety and technology features have certainly made them better.  

Q. What do you hope to accomplish at this year’s historic expo? 

A. Exposing students to modalities of exercise that they have not done or seen before, including combining rock climbing and body weight exercises; outdoor fitness, such as trail hikes and high-ropes challenge courses; and classes in the pool, including stand-up paddle board classes, aqua jogging, and other classes traditionally done on land. We also have several boxing classes in our newly renovated “combative room” at Mem Gym.

While full-time fitness professionals speak and offer master classes, most of the expo sessions are student instructors leading other student instructors from peer institutions through health, wellness and fitness classes, workshops and lectures. The opportunity to prepare and present in this forum provides true and unique experiential learning and development opportunities, while building networks and friendships beyond their schools. 

Find more information about UVA fitness courses and options at the IM-Rec website.

Media Contact

McGregor McCance

Darden School of Business Executive Editor