Compared to exercising solo, group fitness classes offer encouragement and camaraderie with fellow exercisers that can help keep you motivated. The right instructor also can make a difference in whether you make exercise a lifelong habit.
"The best group fitness instructors make exercise fun and help you improve your conditioning by appropriately challenging you according to your fitness level," says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist and the certification and exam development manager at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.
They also can design moves that help you get the most out of your workout and avoid injury by providing guidelines during class on how to correct your form.
But choosing the right instructor isn't just a matter of trial and error. Below are steps you can take ahead of time to ensure the instructor you choose is qualified and a good fit for your personality and fitness level.
One of the first things to look for in a fitness instructor is certification from a nationally recognized certifying organization, such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). That accreditation tells you the instructor you're working with has the knowledge to provide you with a safe and effective workout.
"The club where you work out should make sure the instructors they hire hold the appropriate credentials," says Mr. Comana.
But as a consumer, you also can double-check by doing your homework. To find a certified instructor in your area or check the credentials of an instructor, log on to the ACE website or the website of the ACSM.
"Having a college degree in exercise science is an added bonus," says Mr. Comana. Someone with a formal fitness education will be more informed about the physiological and biomechanical aspects of exercise.
"They'll have greater insight into key areas, such as how your level of exertion can affect your heart rate and understand subtle nuances in form that can protect you from injury," says Mr. Comana.
Questioning participants who've taken a class with a particular instructor also can help you decide whether a certain class would be right for you.
Have they enjoyed the classes? Any drawbacks to be aware of? For a targeted assessment, "ask other participants who have similar needs or appear to have the same fitness level or body type as yours," says Mr. Comana.
Take the plunge
Beyond that, choosing a group fitness instructor boils down to personal chemistry, so go ahead and take a class you believe matches your fitness level.
During the class, take mental notes about the instructor. Does he or she:
Make the class personal by making eye contact with you and others?
Make you feel welcome and try to learn your name?
Offer tips to participants who are overwhelmed or not challenged?
Make exercise fun and have an enthusiastic attitude?
Focus on improving health, rather than appearance?
Emphasize personal accomplishments and avoid comparing participants to each other?
Put your workout above his or hers?
A good instructor will do all those things, says Mr. Comana. He or she will also recommend a different level class if the one you're taking isn't right for your fitness level.
"If you're a first-timer, consider introducing yourself to the instructor and asking him or her to keep an eye on you, especially if you have medical issues to consider," says Mr. Comana.
After the class, gauge how well you enjoyed it.
"That's really the bottom line," says Mr. Comana. "If you don't like an activity and look forward to it, you're not going to stick with it for very long."