Zumba: Is the “Fitness-Party” a Good Workout?

Currently, one of the most popular group fitness classes in clubs is Zumba®. Zumba is a Latin-inspired dance workout first developed in Columbia in the mid- '90s by celebrity fitness trainer Alberto “Beto” Perez. Zumba was actually developed by “accident,” when Beto forgot to bring his traditional aerobics music to class one day. The only music he had was a few Latin music tapes in his car. In his class, he let the music motivate him, just as if he were in a club, and began dancing to Salsa, Rumba, and Merengue. His participants loved it and Zumba was born.

One of the reasons that Zumba is so popular is that its creator claims that “there is no right or wrong way to do it;” participants are encouraged to move to the beat of the music and the choreography is less formal than in many other group exercise classes. It is more of a dance party and the popular catchphrase: “Ditch the workout - join the party!” has become associated with Zumba. Zumba is currently performed by over 12 million people, at 110,000 sites, in 125 countries around the world (Zumba Fitness, 2012). Recently, Zumba was ranked 9th in terms of worldwide fitness trends for the year 2012 (Thompson, 2011). Despite the widespread popularity of Zumba, there is very little research documenting the potential fitness benefits of this dance form.

Zumba Fitness: Sure It’s Fun But Is it Effective?

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.

The Study

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 VO2based 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.

The Results

After crunching the resulting data, researchers found that participating in a single Zumba fitness class burned an average of 369 calories or about 9.5 kcal per minute (Table 1).

Table 1.  Exercise Responses to a Zumba fitness Class

Variable

Mean ± SD 

Range

Workout Time (min:sec)

38:48 ± 4:53

32–52

HR (bpm)

154 ±14.1

127–177

% HRmax

  80 ± 7.0

65–89

Estimated VO2 (mL/kg/min)

30.9 ± 6.19

21.2–42.1

% VO2max

64 ± 10.5

40–82

METs 

8.8 

6.1–12.0

Kcal/min

9.5 ± 2.69

5.1–15.3

The average HR was 154 beats per minute (bpm), which is roughly 80 percent of the average predicted HRmax for the subjects (Figure 1). Accepted fitness industry guidelines suggest exercising in the range of 64 percent to 94 percent of HRmax to improve cardio endurance, so Zumba meets those requirements.

“If we look at the heart-rate monitor strips from the Zumba fitness session, they kind of look like interval workouts, going back and forth between high intensity and low intensity,” says lead researcher Mary Luettgen, M.S. “Because of that, with Zumba you burn a lot of extra calories compared to a steady-state exercise like jogging.”

 As for the average estimated percentage of VO2max, the subjects averaged 64 percent of VO2max, which is well within industry recommendations of 40 percent to 85 percent of VO2max for improving cardio endurance.

Of particular note is that HRmax and VO2max responses for all of the subjects fell within the range of industry guidelines, despite the fact that there was a wide range of fitness levels among the subjects. 

The Bottom Line

Zumba fitness may feel like a party, but this research suggests that it’s also a highly effective workout.

“It’s a total-body exercise—a good, high-energy aerobic workout,” explains Dr. Porcari. “Zumba fitness is also good for core strengthening and flexibility gains because there are lots of hip and midsection movements.”

With subjects burning an average of 369 calories per class, Zumba fitness is also a fine choice for those who are looking to drop a few pounds or maintain their current weight levels. In comparison with other exercises tested in the past by the University’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science, Zumba burns more calories than cardio kickboxing, step aerobics, hooping and power yoga (Figure 2).