I recently went to a real, IRL Jazzercise class (in 2022!) at a dance studio near my house. I didn’t know what to expect, but from the moment the upbeat pop music started playing, I felt my face split into a huge smile. Maybe it was the positive energy of the trainer, or the fact that I was working with women 10, 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years older than me. Maybe it was the touch of the step, the cha-chas, the movement of the wrist. But the fun I was having was written on my face.
Later in the strength portion of my class, my muscles were wearing on me. Bicep curling and overhead pressing for the duration of a J.Lo song is hard! I looked at one of my classmates who looked like he was probably in his 70s, and a thought came to mind: Oh my God, do I really have to lift weights when I’m his age?
The answer, I hope, is yes. Between the shimmies and the thrusts, the lesson the Jazzercise class really taught me was:
Exercise is a lifelong relationship that is up to me to maintain
“Exercise reduces basically every disease and has all these mental health benefits, such as reducing anxiety and depression, improving mood, helping concentration and improving energy levels,” says Jamie Shapiro, associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Denver.
Shapiro previously taught a course called Fitness for life, which was intended to instill in college students the idea that exercise should be a lifelong endeavor because it benefits your health like nothing else does. “Knowing that physical activity will still contribute to my physical and mental health I think can help the relationship last longer,” says Shapiro.
Seeing septuagenarians doing out-bicep curls reminded me of that fact. I should be lucky to lift weights aerobically for the next few decades. One of my classmates, Colin, who is in his 80s, told me that he has been coming to Jazzercise since the 80s. It gives her energy and makes her feel fulfilled, she says. The fact that Colin has been jazzercising for so long and so regularly is probably what keeps him from jazzercising.
“Be as active as you can, not only because being active isn’t good for your heart, but overall if you stop being active, your cardiorespiratory fitness, your muscular fitness starts to decline,” says Russell Buhr, MD, PhD, of UCLA. A pulmonologist of health. This overall decline makes it more difficult to resume exercise once you’ve stopped. “It’s about staying and maintaining that level of conditioning so you’re able to do what you want to do without getting tired.”
Basically, the adage of a body in motion remains in motion, a body at rest remains at rest, only becomes more relevant with age. The way we get jazzers like Colin who’s been doing random-ball-changes since Reagan was in office: He never stopped moving, so he can still move today.
So how do you make sure exercise trumps your other relationships?
Of course, it’s important to keep the health benefits in mind—it’s a technique known as finding “extrinsic motivation,” Shapiro explains, meaning something outside of ourselves gives us something like an accountability buddy, winning a competition, achieving a goal, or getting paid. For example. But Jazzercise showed me that the secret ingredient to a lifelong relationship with fitness is joy.
Personally, I couldn’t picture myself doing intense HIIT or cycling classes for decades. The odds sound just as stark. But dancing and laughing to Justin Timberlake with a group of women I see every week? It sounds like a way of growing up I can get behind. As such, the importance of joy in exercise was never clear to me.
“Enjoyment and fun are key ingredients to maintaining your fitness routine,” says Shanna Missett Nelson, president of Jazzercise. “If you don’t enjoy your routine or program, there’s little chance of maintaining a long-term relationship with exercise.”
Shapiro agrees and says that enjoying your workout — or what he calls “intrinsic motivation” — can be a more powerful motivator than any external factor. “Health reasons can be intrinsic, but it’s not a pure intrinsic motivation like, I like it, I’m having fun,” Shapiro says. “Finding activities that are exciting and that you enjoy will help you stick with them.”
Of course, what you enjoy in your 30s may not be what you enjoy in your 50s. Shapiro says it’s important to keep track of how your fun level waxes and wanes and change things accordingly. But Missette Nelson points out that an exercise that can adapt to you as you age will help you keep it a part of your life.
“If a fitness program doesn’t evolve and change to meet the needs of different life stages, people are more likely to quit—and it can be very difficult to start from there,” says Missette Nelson. “So, look for programs that can evolve with you—it’ll be much easier to stick with in the long run.”
Today, in my 30s, I go for runs and walks, I do HIIT with a friend on Zoom, and I even attend classes that push me to my limits. Now, after jazzerizing and reflecting on what it means that I’m going to be working literally my whole life, I have an idea of the activities that will probably be around: they are the ones that make me whoop joy. Because it’s a relationship with exercise that’s worth waiting for.