Zumba was born in Colombia in the 1990s, quite by accident. A fitness instructor forgot to bring his usual workout music to class, so he grabbed some Latin albums from his car, ditched the constraints of a traditional workout and danced just like he would at a club. His class followed along, sweating to the salsa and rumba beats, and loving it.
Since then, Zumba has pitched itself as more of a party than a workout. Indeed, some research suggests it may be the very best workout for people who hate to exercise.
A Zumba class is like any other instructor-led workout, but with simple dance moves heavy on the hips and step counts. Those moves add up to a decent sweat, says John Porcari, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. He and his colleagues analyzed a group of women who were Zumba regulars and found that a 40-minute class burns about 370 calories, a little more than nine calories per minute. That’s roughly the same amount you’d work off if you ran at a slow-ish pace or biked at 15 miles per hour for the same amount of time.
People worked hard in the class, too. “We found that they exercised at about 80% of maximum heart rate, and 60% V02 max,” which is a measure of oxygen used during exercise, he says. “We found it’s a pretty good workout—similar to moderately intense exercises like step aerobics or cardio kickboxing.”
But the most impressive part of Zumba is how much it appeals to people who stay away from exercise. A study in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that when women with type 2 diabetes and obesity did Zumba three times a week for 16 weeks, they lost an average of 2.5 pounds and lowered their percentage of body fat by 1%. More importantly, the women enjoyed the class so much that they made it a habit—very unusual for an aerobic exercise program. “After the study had ended, most the participants continued going,” says study coauthor Jamie Cooper, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “It seems like most of them had fun, made friends and didn’t see Zumba as hard work."
The workout-in-disguise has unique physical and mental health benefits. Another study linked Zumba’s hip-swinging, stomach-gyrating movements to increased core and trunk strength and better balance in older overweight women. After just eight weeks, the women’s quality-of-life scores jumped 9% and their self-esteem increased 16%. A related study on Zumba’s psychological benefits found that people who practice it feel more independent and said that their lives seemed more purposeful.
It’s not hard to see why the activity would be invigorating and freeing. “You have to let go and have fun during Zumba,” Cooper says. Just as some people with anxiety take improv classes to relieve their social skittishness, dancing around other people may help Zumba-goers feel less shy or self-conscious about their bodies.
The workout may be especially helpful for older adults who can't run or do more intense workouts (or for those who don't want to). One 2015 study found that even scaled-back versions of Zumba can help older adults keep up their cardiovascular fitness. More broadly, plenty of evidence suggests that dancing can help seniors maintain balance and coordination, lowering their risk for falls.
Zumba is never going to compete with workouts like CrossFit or high-intensity interval training when it comes to physical fitness gains. “But not everyone is the type to sign up for CrossFit,” Cooper says. “There’s still a place for Zumba, because people really enjoy it.”