Exercise trends tap world cultures to get folks fit

Krav Maga
Krav Maga participants practice hand-to-hand combat skills at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center on June 3, 2013.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Zumba is one of the nation's fastest growing and most popular workout programs. But the Latin dance regimen is not the only culturally inspired fitness practice drawing gym-goers these days. More health clubs are incorporating multiculturalism into their exercise offerings.

Mat Spaan, a fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, begins his classes with standard running drills, followed by a few rounds of light strangling.

"Do either of you mind if I choke you?" Spaan asks a pair of participants. "I won't choke you hard."

Spaan teaches Krav Maga, which is Hebrew for "contact combat." The self-defense system relies on Israeli military techniques and offers strategies to fight off attacks like muggings and sexual assaults.

"I saw Krav Maga on a sitcom and I Googled it. And now I train five days a week" student Kate Wulf said. She had been looking for a way to stay in shape, but couldn't bear the tedium of a treadmill.

Krav Maga class
Gym-goers take part in a Krav Maga class on June 3, 2013. Krav Maga is Hebrew for "contact combat." The self-defense system relies on Israeli military techniques.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"I like that it's very brutal," Wulf continued. "It's fun to hit. It's fun to be aggressive, especially as a girl."

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Classmate Jake Saelens abhors the very concept of a stationary bike. Krav Maga, he said, is like exercise in disguise.

"I got into Krav because my stepdad started taking it," Saelens said. "He would come home beaten up and bruised and trying to show me all these things and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world."

Some students like knowing they can defend themselves on the streets if needed. Others, Spaan said, love the idea of burning calories while connecting with their culture.

"I think that absolutely is part of the reality here," Spaan said. "Some of my friends who train in it that are Jewish look at it as a point of pride, like, 'yeah, this is from my culture.'"

Krav Maga is part of a growing trend some call "ethno-exercise." Culturally inspired workouts, such as Bollywood-style dance classes and West African movement courses, can now be found at high-end clubs, YMCAs and adult education centers.

Zumba is the current darling of the fitness world, with more than 14 million weekly participants in 150 countries.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The diversity of the American population has lead to diversity in gym curriculums, said Kathie Davis, cofounder and executive director of IDEA Health and Fitness Association in San Diego.

"More people are getting certified as fitness professionals," Davis said. "Normally what happens is they put these classes together from their own cultural roots, developing classed based on what they know and what is familiar to them."

The Internet, she said, has also had a huge influence on the fitness industry.

"We're better able to research other cultures and we're more able to immediately see classes that develop, let's say, in India," Davis said. "We're more connected across our cultures."

And that leads to Lebanese belly dancing in American health clubs, Russian kettlebells in gyms and Zumba enthusiasts packing studios.

At the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, instructor Elaine Francis leads 17 women in a morning Zumba lesson.

Zumba students celebrate the end of their morning workout at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, Minn., on May 31, 2013.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"This song can only be done with leopard skin spandex tights and 4-inch stilettos," Francis declares. "And I'm not good enough to do that yet so we're gonna do it with athletic shoes."

The class is a mix of South American rhythms and Latin dance moves. The women, most of them Jewish and many in their 80s, know little about Latin culture. But that's the draw.

"I like the Latin sound" Belina Reisman said. "I love dance and I don't get to do it anywhere, so I get to do it here and pretend I know it."

Student Linda Perry has a similar story. "I have a non-dancing husband so we don't dance. I love [Zumba]. Everything just works. It loosens us up and I can go hit the garden now," she said.

Lorraine Hertz has her own reasons for being drawn to Zumba. "It's a sexy dance. And we just do all kinds of things we wouldn't like anybody to notice," Hertz laughed.

Whether it's through Zumba classes or Swahili endurance drills, the goal is to keep participants engaged, Davis said.

"People are always looking for new inspiration to keep them excited about fitness," Davis said. "And that's where a lot of these classes come in."

Multiculturalism, she's found, does wonders for the metabolism.