Grab Your Leg Warmers! Step Aerobics Classes Are Making a Comeback

Photo: Getty Images/Juan Algar
Think back to your childhood: Did you ever walk in on your parents enthusiastically stepping up onto mini platforms with the TV blaring in front of them and a VHS case on the table? Perhaps leotards and leg warmers were part of the equation, too.

Yeah, it’s a fond (and maybe funny) memory for people all over the world.

The reason? Step aerobics, the exercise technique that took the late ‘80s and early ‘90s by storm, and brought people together from near and far, in studios and at home. And now, some 30 years later, the classic cardio format is booming once again.

The resurgence of step aerobics

What’s that saying that so many parents love to preach? Everything that goes around, comes around. And that’s true of step aerobics, too.

“It never really went out of style in some areas,” says step instructor Karla Luster of Fit Outside the Box. Where she lives in Richmond, Virginia, classes have stayed popular. “So I think whenever people add their own flavor it makes the ‘old’ new again.”

It’s that emphasis on making the old new that resonates with Judson MacDonald, CPT, learning and development specialist for Les Mills. “This isn’t Aunt Viv’s leotard workout anymore,” he exclaims.

Gin Miller originated the step aerobics workout in Atlanta in the late '80s, after her doctor recommended stepping up and down off a milk crate as rehabilitation for a knee injury. In the decades since then, the workout has evolved. When Les Mills' BODYSTEP launched in Auckland, New Zealand, it incorporated research-based movement patterns (that continue to change every few months). What’s more, modern step aerobics—like many current boutique workouts—is infinitely modifiable, making it accessible for people of all ages and abilities.

“Inclusivity through options is a key ingredient to keeping any type of exerciser moving along with the fun,” MacDonald says. “You can go with friends and do different levels from each other while enjoying the same experience together.”

That ability to move together, and the community surrounding the workout, is part of what's driving the trend. "I definitely think the pandemic helped—people needed some new ways to stay fit and focused at home," says Luster. "You don't have time to get bored while you step."

And people crave social exercise, MacDonald points out. “We find motivation when we move with others and share that experience together.”

The benefits of step aerobics

Step aerobics is one of the most classic forms of functional training. “It emulates the everyday functions of walking, climbing stairs, getting out of a car, and stepping out of the way of dog poop on the sidewalk,” says MacDonald. “When we place these everyday functional movements to the beat of music and a step, we create a fun, effective, and humbling, dare I say, workout that benefits all.”

Most classes are particularly lower-body focused. “It strengthens our glutes, quads, and leg muscles,” MacDonald says. Les Mills' BODYSTEP, for instance, sets rhythmic stepping and strength moves like lunges and squats to upbeat music.

MacDonald points out that step aerobics can also improve coordination and joint stability, especially in beginners. But don’t get it twisted: Step aerobics isn’t some simple workout for the less active. “Anyone who trains agility, sits in a chair, lives on the third floor of an apartment building, walks a pet, or balances on one leg will benefit from this type of training,” MacDonald says.

True as that may be, Luster admits that step aerobics is often more popular among women. “It's all ages now—even old-school step aerobics is appealing to women ages 20 to 65-plus,” she says.

How to practice step aerobics at home

As inviting and fulfilling as in-person step aerobics classes are, not everyone is ready, able, or willing to head to a studio. Fortunately, step aerobics thrives at home.

“All you need is a step bench—I call it a stepper,” Luster says. “The best way to step safely is on non-carpeted floors, with sneakers, and preferably a shock-absorbing step bench.” She recommends the old school Reebok deck or the Les Mills SMARTSTEP System, which has risers that lock in and target lines for foot placement.

Once you have your bench, Luster says that risers (which can make stepping more challenging, thanks to extra elevation) are optional.

To start stepping, MacDonald recommends first acquainting yourself with the motions of the workout. “At base level, you can start with a kitchen mat or doormat to get your feet moving with the beat of the music,” he says. “For example, take the basic step (up, up, down, down)—you can practice walking up onto the mat and back down behind the mat. It creates a visual so your brain can learn to say, ‘Yes! I’m fearless and will not trip!’”

Once you feel comfortable with the sequence, put your stepper to work. You can bring up any number of step workouts on YouTube (including Luster’s), Instagram, or online programs like trainer Charlee Atkins’ Le Sweat TV or LES MILLS+.

But let this be your warning: From the moment you start stepping, you’ll likely never want to stop. “Once you find an exercise you love, you'll never have to work out a day in your life,” Luster says. “Consistency is about finding exercise you absolutely love or at least can look forward to.”

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