A few years back, my sister-in-law invited me to join her at a hip-hop exercise class. Forgetting that I’m rhythm-challenged and that my dance-move repertoire consists solely of jazz hands and The Sprinkler, I accepted. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to keep up—for the first three minutes of the class. But the moment the routine involved more than a quarter turn or stepping back and forth in time to the music, I was toast. And this was just the warm-up. At that point, I should have salvaged the shreds of my dignity and quietly exited the building, but I persisted.
Before long, I looked rather like Raymond of Everybody Loves Raymond in his classic exercise-class fail. Because I couldn’t keep up with the instructor’s choreography, I invented my own. Soon, the hilarity of the situation hit me and I was laughing until I could hardly breathe. After the class, I had zero desire to ever put myself through that humiliation again, but even if I had, I would have been out of luck: I found out later that the instructor had spoken to my sister-in-law and requested that I never return.
Fortunately, not all workout classes are quite that disastrous. In fact, there is much to say in their favor. They can push you to work harder than you would on your own. They can introduce variety to your exercise repertoire. They can keep you accountable and help you identify when your form is off. The trick is finding one that suits you. Here are tips I’ve garnered after much trial and error.
Cast the net widely. Don’t be afraid to try a variety of classes, even ones you don’t think you’ll like. It was no shock to me that I stunk at hip-hop, but I once tried an aerial fitness class (think beginner Cirque de Soleil) and was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy it, but I wasn’t half-bad. Yoga wasn’t my thing, HIIT was. The point is: Don’t dismiss a workout without giving it a shot.
Vet the instructor. Reputable gyms hire only qualified instructors, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be your type. Do you want someone who checks for correct form? Are you looking for a drill sergeant? Or more the cheery sort? How’s their playlist? Think of what criteria are most important to you, and ask gym staff or other gym-goers which instructors might meet it.
Stay within your limits. When you do try a class, don’t be a hero your first time out (this is especially for competitive types—we know who we are). The first time I did CrossFit, I injured myself because I convinced myself I could handle as much weight as the girl next to me (who was a good 15 years younger). Just a few weeks ago, during my first-ever trampoline fitness class, I nearly put a toddler in the hospital when I got too enthusiastic and launched myself out of the trampoline pit and into the walkway. Trust me—no one was impressed.
Know when to mix it up. Even the best fitness classes can get stale. If you hit a plateau or your motivations sags, seek out something new. Just learn from my mistake: If you’re three minutes into a new class and you’re already spiraling downward, get out while you still can.
Kellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).