Originally created 02/11/99

Hip-hop series grabs corner of workout market



I'm not exactly an exercise buff. Until recently, I didn't even own a single workout video. Neither would I consider myself a fan of hip-hop music. So when I decided to try out an exercise video, I actually might have preferred "Sweatin' to the Oldies" if not for its creepy wind-up-toy-with-an-Afro host, Richard Simmons. So how did MTV's "The Grind: Hip Hop Aerobics" win that coveted spot next to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" on top of my VCR?

First of all, I knew that some sort of exercise video had to make a debut appearance in my apartment. I count myself among the majority of young people who don't exercise nearly enough. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Exercise reports that "nearly half of American youths aged 12-21 years are not vigorously active on a regular basis." Why not turn TV time into exercise time? And what better way to build enthusiasm for an exercise routine than to pretend you'll actually use these moves to impress members of the opposite sex next time you're out clubbing?

MTV certainly knows how to appeal to youth. The video makes use of popular music, attractive dancers and an interesting warehouse scenery. Songs include "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree, "Turn the Beat Around" by Vicki Sue Robinson and "Insane in the Brain" by Cypress Hill. Oh, and the workout isn't too bad, either.

"Hip Hop Aerobics" is the first in a series of five workout videos based on the once-popular MTV dance show, "The Grind." Since the video was released in 1995, it has sold more than 100,000 copies in the United States.

The series, whose other titles are "Fitness With Flava," "Dance Club Aerobics," "Strength and Fitness" and "Fat Burning Grooves," has accrued a total of 350 weeks on Billboard magazine's Health and Fitness charts.

Fitness experts give the program good reviews. Holly Spicer, director of professional development at the American Council on Exercise, says MTV "really covered all its bases."

Spicer, who has been teaching group exercise at a corporate fitness center in San Diego for 10 years, gives "Hip Hop Aerobics" a thumbs up for several reasons. The video, which contains a warm-up, a main workout, a cool-down and an additional set of abdominal exercises, pays close attention to safety, she said. The warm-up works all the basic muscle groups. A heart-rate chart flashes on the screen to explain what pulse rate you should work toward. And Lynda Nader, the certified instructor on the tape, "does an excellent job of offering modifications," Spicer said. For example, if the exercise is too hard, viewers are told to march in place awhile.

Jenny Pelto, a spokeswoman for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, also praises the video, especially because of the movements.

"They're not boring; they're fun," she said. Based on hip-hop dance moves, these fast-paced exercises literally keep you on your toes. No problem for 25-year-old Pelto: She was a dancer for 17 years. Pelto stresses the fact that hip-hop dancing is particularly good for cardiac fitness.

Of course, all those quick movements were a little difficult for me. I found it nearly impossible to coordinate the first move, the Gator, with the second, the Box Step. And when I saw a move that called for the viewer to jump up, cross her legs, then jump back, I sensed a problem. Some poor, uncoordinated fool is going down.

That sort of accident, however, is a problem only for people who ignore the instruction to move all furniture out of the way. Don't underestimate the expanse of jump-around room necessary to complete these dance aerobics. If followed correctly, "Hip Hop Aerobics" is safe, although complex.

If you can get the hang of these steps on the first try, consider yourself Lord of the Dance. Even the buff host, Eric Nies, admits at the end of the video that he had trouble with some of the moves. I wish he would have said so at the beginning -- it might have saved me a little face. It did help, though, to see Nies' face contort with pain when he did his ab exercises. There's nothing worse than doing your workout in agony -- while being told how easy it is by some perfectly fit host who barely feels the burn.

Another smart move by MTV was getting Peg Jordan to write guidelines for the video. She has an outstanding reputation in the fitness industry. Not only is she the editor of Fitness Magazine, but she has been a consultant for 22 fitness videos, including Cher's. Jordan made certain that MTV hired an instructor certified by the American Fitness and Aerobics Association to demonstrate the exercises on the Grind videos she oversaw. She also tried to steer male MTV execs away from including songs she saw as degrading to women.

Unfortunately, some of the dances themselves approach this category. Okay, they're not so much degrading as embarrassing. The series' namesake dance, The Grind, makes me feel like closing the blinds to make sure nobody sees me.

Maybe someday there will be a workout video for every kind of music. I'm crossing my fingers that ska will be next in line. But until that time comes, you'll find me grinding away to "Hip Hop Aerobics." Or trying, at least.