The craze now known as Zumba fitness is said to have started as a mistake by Colombian trainer Alberto "Beto" Perez. One day in the mid-90s, Beto reportedly forgot to bring his regular aerobics-style music tape to the group exercise class he was leading. With no music and a class to teach, he raced back to his car and scrounged up a cassette tape of Latin dance music. As the lively beats of Merengue and Rumba rang out, Beto drew upon his experience dancing in Salsa clubs and choreographing for local artists. Soon he was leading his pupils through a fun series of dance steps—and Rumbacize was born. It was an instant hit, and quickly became the most popular class at his gym. In 1999, Beto brought Rumbacize with him when he moved to Miami. It immediately caught on there as well and, with the help of a pair of entrepreneurs, Beto rebranded his class and transformed it into the global franchise that is Zumba fitness today.
Just because Zumba fitness is fun, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an effective workout. Despite its immense popularity, to date very little research has been done to document the potential benefits of this form of aerobic dance. So the American Council on Exercise, the nation's Workout Watchdog®, commissioned Dr. Porcari and his team of exercise scientists to determine whether Zumba fitness provides a workout, a party or both.
Zumba fitness has quickly grown to one of the most popular group exercise classes on the planet. In fact, the Latin-dance inspired workout is reportedly performed by more than 12 million people at 110,000 sites, in 125 countries around the world.
“Ditch the Workout – Join the Party!” That’s the marketing slogan for Zumba fitness, which attracts exercisers with a fun fusion of dance moves from styles like Salsa, Merengue, Reggaeton and Flamenco, and the sort of choreography you might see in a nightclub.
“Historically, aerobic dance was always like paint by the numbers,” says John Porcari, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science. “I think sometimes people get frustrated if dance steps get too intricate and complicated. But Zumba fitness leaves more room for interpretation. And it’s non-judgmental. You don’t have to move exactly like the instructor. It’s more like dancing in a club—people can just move the way they want.”
Led by Porcari and Mary Luettgen, M.S., researchers from the University’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science set out to determine the average exercise intensity and energy expenditure during a typical Zumba fitness class. First they recruited 19 healthy female volunteers, ages 18 to 22, all of whom had previous experience participating in Zumba classes.
To establish a baseline of fitness for the study subjects, each performed a maximal treadmill test that measured heart rate (HR) and oxygen consumption VO2. This test also enabled researchers to develop individual linear regression equations for each subject to predict their VO2 based on HR readings. This was key because standard metabolic testing gear is bulky and wearing it would encumber the subjects’ ability to dance and properly participate in the Zumba class.
After the treadmill testing, each subject participated in a single Zumba session while equipped with a heart-rate monitor. While the class length varied from 32 to 52 minutes depending on which day it was conducted, the same Zumba-certified instructor taught all of the sessions.