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? Or maybe you tagged along with your mom to a room full of women in leotards and leg warmers all stepping to the same beat.
Step aerobics took the late ‘80s and early ‘90s by storm, both in studios and at home. And now, some 30 years later, the classic cardio format is booming once again.
The resurgence of step aerobics
“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. “I think whenever people add their own flavor it makes the ‘old’ new again.”
"This isn't Aunt Viv's leotard workout anymore." —Judson MacDonald, CPT
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 behind the popularity. "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.”
What muscles does step aerobics strengthen? Most classes are particularly lower-body focused. “It strengthens our glutes, quads, and leg muscles,” MacDonald says. By adding a platform, you're adding a form of resistance to your workout, making each step challenge the muscles that much more as you push away from gravity. "By implementing a foreign piece of equipment [like a step], the point is to increase the intensity of the exercise," Luke Milton, trainer and founder of Training Mate in Los Angeles, previously told Well+Good.
The constant movement of a step aerobics class also helps to work out and strengthen the heart. Reminder: If you're looking to improve your cardiovascular health, experts recommend at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day. "If you can sing or have a full-on conversation with the person next to you, you're not working hard enough to improve your heart health," Andrew Freeman, MD, cardiologist with Jewish National Health, previously told Well+Good. Most step classes will leave you at least a little breathless, giving you just the right cardio challenge to strengthen your ticker.
Additionally, MacDonald points out that step aerobics can 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.
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 classes are easy to do 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, 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!’”
"You can start with a kitchen mat or doormat to get your feet moving with the beat of the music." —Judson MacDonald, CPT
Once you feel comfortable with the sequence, put your stepper to work. 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.”
Try this 15-minute step aerobics workout
Equipment needed: The only equipment you technically need is a step bench. If you don’t have one at home, you can use a bottom stair, or just do the workout on a flat surface (although that option will challenge your muscles less).
Workout length: Fifteen minutes
Step exercises included: Marches, butt kicks, four marches up and down, tap ups, corner knees, straight-on knees, basics, corner triples, “L” steps, corner curls, rock steps. If that sounds overwhelming, fear not: Poupard takes it all, well, step by step, demonstrating along the way, and slowing things down whenever he intros something tricky so you can get the hang of it.
Cooldown: Overhead reaches to either side, hamstring release leaning over your foot on the step, inner thigh stretch with the legs wide reaching across back and forth to each foot
Form tip: Be sure to get your entire foot on the platform when you step up to stay safe.
Ready to go? Hit play on the video above, and get that heart pumping. Don't blame us if you end up bookmarking this one to do over and over again.
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