From strippercise to circus-trapeze aerobics, gyms and fitness gurus keep coming up with new ways to make working out less of a chore. But though these whimsical classes and instructional DVDs can reinvigorate your gym routine, some of the glitziest (and goofiest) new trends can also put you at risk for sprained ankles, pulled muscles and overexertion. And some don't even give you much of a workout.
Here are seven of the silliest fitness fads—with the lowdown on whether or not they really chisel and tone. (For other workout tips, check out our earlier story on "Six of the Worst Ways to Work Out.")
1. Weighted Hula Hooping. Maybe it was the 50th anniversary last month, or maybe it's the buzz over the new Wii Fit version, but Hula Hooping, the backyard mainstay from the 1950s, is back—and a whole lot heavier. National gym chains like Bally Total Fitness now offer hooping classes to kids and seniors alike, with weighted Hula Hoops that participants wheel around their outstretched limbs and torso.
Will the toy-based hybrid of strength and cardio give you the toned curves of Beyonce, who says she hoops to stay svelte? "The unweighted, traditional ones definitely work your core, and you can actually get the cardio system up," says Jim White, certified fitness trainer and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). "I would recommend staying with the normal ones—with the weighted [hoops], beginners could pull a muscle."
The verdict: If you can do it, join the hoopligans. But avoid weighted hoops if you're new, and be advised of the gender divide—White says women are far more likely to be able to hoop well than men.
2. Strippercise. Toned celebrities like Kate Hudson and Carmen Electra started shilling this female-only fad five years ago, boasting both body and boudoir benefits from sensual "aerobic striptease" classes. Several variations caught on—pole-dancing classes, chair-centered lap-dance routines and floor exercises (the latter a Pilates-like workout that involves a combination of ab-stimulating moves and seductive hair-tossing). Let's forget the existential questions about whether pretending to be a stripper is empowering or degrading, can it get you in shape? "When my girlfriend first said she was going, I was kind of concerned," laughs the ADA's Jim White. "But it really increases your confidence, and you get a great workout."
However, those with weak ankles or shy spirits, beware: strapping on the eight-inch-heeled exotic-dance platforms that some classes use can result in serious injury, says Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. "The stiletto heels ... don't really put the foot and ankle in the most advantageous position," says Bryant. "It's part of the shtick, but purely from the biomedical standpoint, you really want to exercise caution."
The verdict: Sure, it's fun, but it's probably better as a novelty activity at bachelorette parties and group outings than something for dedicated gym rats.
3. The Bodyblade . Take the long, swordlike plastic bar, hoist it overhead and shake vigorously for a trunk-targeted workout that supposedly causes up to 270 muscle contractions per minute, giving you washboard abs and ropey shoulders that are rounded, not chiseled. The device uses physics as its premise: once set into motion, the oscillating bar must be stopped by your effort to overcome its inertia. That straining is the workout. Though it's making the rounds as the "new" thing, Bryant says Bodyblade-like bars have been around in physical therapy practices for years. "It helps you challenge the neuromuscular system—how the nerves communicate with the muscles, and relearning that process," he says. What if you're just looking for core stability? White, who's never tried the Bodyblade, says he has one client who bought into the trend—for a while. "To be honest, I think she used it for about a month and then moved on," he says.
The verdict: Can be good for physical therapy but otherwise a fickle fad. If you don't mind looking like an idiot, and not knowing how many calories it burns (the makers disclose no numbers, saying it's "difficult to calculate"), give it a spin.
4. Cirque du Soleil-Inspired "Aerial Aerobics." The breathtaking stunts of the world's best-known circus acrobatics troupe first inspired workouts at trendy gyms like Crunch and Equinox and have now spawned "aerial fitness studios" where you tone up by defying gravity. The premise of "fabric aerobics" is simple: just shimmy to the top of a cloth lanyard, wrap it around your feet and hang, limbs dangling. Sounds easy, right? Maybe not: "They told me it was Pilates but with hanging hammock things," says my colleague Jessica Bennett, who tried it, "but you seriously had to be an acrobat." The bare-minimum skill level for a workout like this—the class is called "Fabric" at Crunch—might be good enough to get you into the circus.
The verdict: The greatest of ease? Yeah, right. "It can backfire from the standpoint that you feel really inadequate," Bryant says—and who needs one more reason not to exercise?
5. Wind-Relieving Asana . Thought fiber was the only natural remedy for expelling excess gas? Think again: this series of yoga postures assumed in asana-based classes assists air in exiting your digestive tract—in a room full of people. The motions involve lying flat on your back and pulling your left, right or both knees into your tensed stomach, squeezing out the stale air or, in instructor's lingo, engaging your abdominal region to assist with elimination. The poses are also said to enhance supine strength and flexibility, making them optimal for those with both bad backs and Metamucil in their pantries (read: old people). "It could certainly be helpful with some individuals in terms of [their] low backs," says Bryant. "But the whole flatulence aspect—I'm not so sure that there's a great deal of physiological support for that being a need."
The verdict: Group flatu-fitness? We'll pass.
6. Wii Fit Ski-Jump. Some of the applications for Nintendo's latest gee-whiz gadget are gathering a cultlike following for their fitness-is-fun virtual workouts, all centered on a floor pad that senses your movement. The "Two-Person Run" lets you jog around a lush digital island, for example, without leaving your living room, and White says it's very popular with his clients. But others, like "Ski Jumping," require extra vigilance to get the full fitness payoff—meaning, holding the poses for the right amount of time and managing your breath correctly. Marked as a balance-improver, the ski jump requires the jumper to remain in a slight squat position for a few seconds before quickly straightening up. But White says: slow your release in any squat to get the toning payoff. "Make sure you're not holding your breath, and hold the release for anywhere from four to five seconds," he says. The other requirements? Ponying up the $90 for the Fit (plus about $250 for the Wii console).
The verdict: Wii workouts can be virtually sweat-free, but hold it right, and you could improve your rear view. Click here to watch NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker give Wii fit a whirl.
7. Dorm Room Workouts . College-geared fitness guides like "Dorm Room Diet Workout," by Daphne Oz (daughter of oft-quoted health guru Dr. Mehmet Oz) say the freshman 15 is an elective, not a requirement—and with just 20 minutes of milling around your 9-by-10-foot room, you can stave off the creeping pudge. But when just about every college in America has a gym, why do pushups under a backpack of textbooks? Lack of time, says Oz, whose 20-minute fitness DVD shows a series of room-based stretches and leg lifts that profess to be a shortcut to a toned physique.
But by itself, it's not enough, says Bryant. A Cornell study of college diets suggests that freshman gain over a third of a pound per week during their first semester—meaning a calorie intake that commercial-break chair dips alone won't cancel out. "You can't spot reduce, and everything has to be combined—cardio, weight training and the proper diet," says White. "That's the bottom line with respect to all of these fads—it comes down to hard work."
The verdict: 20 minutes alone in your room won't justify pizza and beer—or win you lasting college memories. But when combined with other healthy habits, it earns high marks.