Zumba is an updated take on dance aerobics to a (mostly) Latin beat. I've read that it originated by accident in the mid-1990s when a Colombian fitness instructor forgot to take his aerobics music tapes to a class. He substituted some salsa and meringue tapes he had with him, improvised some moves for his classes and a craze was born.
Today, Zumba combines dance steps from various Latin dances into an aerobic routine. The name itself is either a play on "rumba" (a ballroom dancing term) or Spanish slang for "to move fast and have fun" depending on which account you read. Regardless, enthusiasts enjoy gyrating to the Latin beat, and I'm told that a 150-pound person can burn 400 to 600 calories per hour-long class if he or she keeps up with the pace.
In addition to the calorie burning and aerobic workout, dance in general can improve balance and coordination, and calls upon you to use different muscles at varying speeds (as opposed to jogging, which tends to use same muscles over and over at a consistent pace). In addition, learning and memorizing the steps, twirls, and kicks of a dance routine is good mental exercise. I've been told by Zumba regulars that it takes a few classes to catch on to the choreography; certainly neophytes should take it slow in the beginning. If you can't follow all the moves, you can always jog in place to the beat until you feel you can join in.
While some Zumba classes are tailored for baby boomers and, as the Zumba website puts it, "active older adults," it might not be right for you if you feel you can't keep up with the others because of knee or hip problems. An instructor may be able to suggest substitute moves that are easier on joints.
If you take a Zumba class, it is important to wear shoes that allow you to move side to side as the class "travels" around the gym. Cross-trainers or dance sneakers with good arch support are recommended. As far as fitness is concerned, you should strive for 45 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five times a week. If you can't take a Zumba class that often, be sure to take a brisk walk on other days. And don't forget the other elements of a well-rounded exercise program - strength training with weights to tone and build your muscles and increase the density of your bones; stretching to improve flexibility, and balance training to prevent falls and injuries.
Andrew Weil, M.D.