Mark Jacques Amunabi, a 29-year-old fitness trainer wanted to be a sniper. But a back injury, when he fell on a stone during training, knocked him out of the police force.
Years later, just as a sniper would, he took a different shot in the fitness industry. He added fun to steps aerobics, an exercise where gym-goers walk, jump, toe-touch or dance on a step to sculpt their legs and glutes.
In his Friday evening class at Gym House in Nairobi, it is like watching a synchronised dance performance on steps. The class is full. The beats of Soukous music or Afro Funk echo through the walls. Sweat drips through the clothes and bodies of the participants, down to the floor as they exercise on the steps.
I never thought that people could sweat this much, especially in a low-intensity workout class. This one-hour class is very intense.
“Exercising on steps used to be a monotonous boring workout. I had to make it fun. It is not just stepping up and down a block. The moves go with the music beats,” Mark says.
What pulls the fitness enthusiasts is that the steps aerobics is a serious calories burner, it is beneficial for all ages and abilities. Mark’s class has women and men in their 30s to 40s, some who are as fit and energetic as active teenagers.
These exercises are pretty legit ways to work the lower half of the body, ensure heart and lung fitness, build muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and enhance coordination.
“I have seen people get back in shape, become better coordinated after consistently doing steps aerobics. People who started the steps classes with big thighs become leaner. It also helps smoothen the dimples and cellulite that come with having big thighs or gaining weight. It is addictive, once you start, you will never stop, you actually forget you’re exercising,” he says.
“It is a low-impact exercise, which means that someone is unlikely to get injuries. Children as young as 10 years can actually do it as well as older people in their 60s,” he adds.
In his class, choreographed manoeuvres are intimidating at first, especially amid participants who have mastered the knee-ups and hop turns.
At one point, Mark commands them to do a horse knee. Uniformly, they do three kicks to the left, and then lift their knees up, then the left leg up while stepping on the stair-like block, then the right and then repeat the kicks.
The leg kicking, is done simultaneously with arms stretching tones both the lower and upper body.
There is also knee straddle where the gym-goers dance-step with one leg on either side of the plastic rectangular block, which is about 45 centimetres wide.
Then there is the travelling knee exercise where participants walk to the end of the plastic block and lift their knee up while tapping the hands on knees.
At one move, he commands them to dance mambo. It may not be the hip-shaking Latin dance but doing it on step works on so many muscles.
“I want the exercise to be fun, excellent total-body workout that is good for burning fat, building muscle and improving people’s fitness levels,” says the trainer who has taught steps for about 10 years now.
Besides steps, he is a personal trainer helping clients regain their back strength.
“When I injured my back, I become inactive and gained 23 kilos. I started training to shed the weight that was also weighing down on my weak back muscles. I’m 72 kgs now and I have maintained that weight for years. Now I am studying for a diploma, learning effective exercises for back pain,” he says.
Exercising in a group makes the steps aerobics feel less torturous. Though I love group exercises, because I get energy from others, this steps aerobics class was different. The moves were so synchronised that I envied the participants. I felt like a White man in a black man’s nightclub, trying to match up to their dancing styles.
However, Mark says to get it right, one can come to the class a few minutes earlier and learn the steps.
“They are basic steps,” he says.
Some of the gym-goers say they started by standing at the back but now they rush for spots at the front row.
“If you are a newbie, come early before the session starts and learn the basics. After a month, if you a slow-learner, you will have mastered the moves. If you a quick learner, in two weeks you’re as good as the rest,” he says.
However, the trainer says steps aerobics is not a magic bullet to get a sexy body.
“You have to be consistent in training. As a trainer, I can do my job of pushing you to exercise for one hour or more but I don’t follow you to your kitchen. You could be eating anything you want,” he says.
What gives him joy?
“When I see bodies changes, especially when I see someone who has back problems walk better, sleep better and have a normal life after exercises,” he says.