- I tried following popular workout fads from the 1980s and early 1990s.
- I used a Thighmaster, followed Jane Fonda’s step-aerobic routines, tried Jazzercise, and did exercises from the famous “Buns of Steel” tape.
- Overall, the workouts from these decades were very approachable and pretty fun, though they’re probably not the most effective exercises out there if you’re looking to get super toned.
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The 1980s and early 1990s may not be the “golden age” of fitness – but those years sure seem like they were a fascinating, lively time to sweat.
From the enthusiastic steps in jazzercise to workout tapes meant to keep you moving, the ’80s and early ’90s were loaded with colorful outfits and upbeat moves that have sort of fallen out of favor by now.
But even today, there’s something about the workouts of this era that just seem fun.
As someone who’s never been particularly enthusiastic about exercise, I decided to embark on a month-long adventure of trying out different workout fads from the ’80s and early ’90s to see what exactly it was that sold a generation on toning up and sweating it out.
Here's how it went.
First, I did some research about women and fitness in the 1980s and early 1990s
Today, it's hard to think of fitness in the '80s and early '90s without conjuring up images of brightly colored leggings, leotards, legwarmers, and sweatbands.
According to Suzanne Somers, the actress who is famously the face of the early '90s workout staple the Thighmaster, the 1980s is when exercise really became popular with and more accessible for women.
She told Insider that, for most of her pre-'80s memory, women exercising just wasn't really a thing. "You either had a good figure or you didn't," she said.
But things were shifting by the decade of excess.
Thanks in part to famous actresses like Somers and Jane Fonda, many women who hadn't really dabbled in fitness were starting to exercise in the form of classes, at-home tapes, and equipment, as a way to take control of their health and their body images.
With this information under my belt, I embarked on my month of fitness fads, from Thighmasters to workout tapes.
I dedicated my first week to the '80s workout legend Jane Fonda
Upon mentioning this month-long assignment to my mom, who was in high school and college during the '80s, she immediately said, "Well, you've got to do Jane Fonda. She's an icon."
Luckily, I was able to find one of Fonda's full workout tapes online.
Since I was planning to do this every weekday, I decided to just start with the first, 30-minute workout in the program: step aerobics.
Believe it or not, I had done step aerobics before - it's a personal blast from to past to about a decade ago, when my high-school phys-ed class had the girls learn a step-aerobics routine while the boys did kickboxing. I still shudder every time I hear "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and the Alien Ant Farm cover of "Smooth Criminal."
Fonda's official routine in the video was much more intense than the step aerobics I remembered and expected. Though, to be fair, I didn't have a proper bench to step on, so I used a box I had lying around. Not ideal, but it worked.
The movements themselves weren't particularly strenuous, but the routine kept me moving and I noticed a lot of moves, like box steps, grapevines, and kicks, seemed like they were taken straight out of a dance studio.
With the instructors' leotards and cheesy encouragement, the video felt charmingly dated - but I could actually see a version of this coming back today. It was a well-paced, low-impact aerobic exercise that seemed perfect for beginners and those with a casual interest in staying active.
I continued doing Fonda's aerobics videos throughout the week, realizing that several of her routines - even the so-called "beginners" tapes - were actually quite intense. She kept me sweating, and I could feel the burn of the workout on my butt, hips, thighs, and calves.
On my last day of Fonda week, even though my legs were wobbly and sore, I decided to try one of her advanced workouts.
I found myself flopping on the ground in exasperation once she got to some of the trickiest moves. Fonda was already in her mid-40s when she filmed these videos - and I, 20 years younger than that, am completely outpaced.
All in all, I think these were excellent workouts and, save for the hairstyles and music, they have aged well. My main issue is that I didn't feel like I worked out my arms very much.
Truth be told, I might start doing these tapes on my own.
My week of Jazzercise was sweaty, but also pretty fun
I thought Fonda's videos were cheesy, but Jazzercise, a type of high-intensity dance workout, was a new level of cheese.
Judi Sheppard Misset started teaching these signature dance aerobics classes in 1969, but by the end of the next decade, Jazzercise was a full-on phenomenon.
I followed Misset's "Let's Jazzercise" video from the early '80s and found it was really focused on cardio; It only had a few sections with isolated muscle exercises
This particular Jazzercise routine was less intense than the ones on Fonda's tapes, but as I tried to keep up, I definitely got my heart pumping.
Plus, Misset's overly enthusiastic persona combined with the silliness of the dance moves themselves, made the exercise all the more fun to follow in 2020.
The other '80s Jazzercise clips I found were 15-minute toning and aerobics videos, which I alternated the rest of the week. A quick workout is ideal for me since there's no way I could work something into my routine if it required a significant time commitment - fortunately, these tapes had some pretty decent moves.
The toning exercises weren't as intense or thorough as Fonda's (granted, they're much shorter), but I definitely felt some burn. Misset's incredibly high energy levels made all of her aerobics routines feel especially fast-paced, and I got sweaty trying to keep up with her.
Although virtually everything about these tapes are hilariously dated (and a few things Misset said, like "Let the Latin shine through," seemed of questionable taste), it's not really surprising that Jazzercise is still around, and has seemingly inspired more modern programs, like Zumba.
If you enjoy high-energy routines or dance, I think Jazzercise is a fun way to get active, especially if you're a fellow beginner who is just introducing fitness to their routines.
For the third week, I tried to turn my buns and abs to steel
Since the big personalities were the highlight of the last two weeks, I had hoped to devote week three to '80s workout legend Richard Simmons.
But during my research, I came across aerobic legend Greg Smithey and his mid-'80s workout tape "Buns of Steel" and I just had to try it.
Smithey was a charming and encouraging host, who was much more subdued than and not as energetic as Misset. That said, his workouts were tough - maybe even more difficult than Fonda's.
This popular video debuted in the early '90s and is also pretty famous. I found that its quick, 10-minute ab workouts plus warm-ups were easy to squeeze into my days mid-week.
After a few days, my buns were adequately rested and ready for another round. Since the "Buns of Steel" tape was more toning than cardio, it felt like the kind of routine I could convince myself to jump into when I have a little bit of time but really don't feel like getting short of breath and super sweaty.
The "Buns of Steel" tape actually seemed pretty effective - I ended up doing this program a couple of times a week and, after a month or so, my friends started commenting that my butt looked a little perkier than usual.
During the final week, I tried the famous Thighmaster
Fortunately, the Thighmaster is still available today - and it's quite recognizable, too. Case in point: during a recent FaceTime call, a friend interrupted herself to ask, "Hold on. Is that a Thighmaster behind you? My mom had one of those!"
The reason Thighmasters are so recognizable perhaps has to do with Suzanne Somers, who championed it and helped advertise it in the early '90s and beyond.
During my month-long workout, I was able to meet with Somers, who said she believes the Thighmaster resonates with customers for the same reasons she likes it: it can be done alone, conveniently, and at home for a reasonable price.
So it makes sense that, in the '90s, Somers' advertising for the Thighmaster emphasized that it could be used while you do other tasks, like folding laundry or watching TV.
Of course, the idea that I could tone my body with minimal exertion was tempting.
Once my own Thighmaster came in the mail, I watched Somers' original instructional video and tried using it for pec, bicep, and of course, classic inner-thigh toning exercises.
I wasn't sure if I was doing it right, because after three weeks of hopping, stepping, and squeezing up a sweat, this sort of seemed … too easy?
But according to Somers, that's kind of the point. The Thighmaster is just a little something you can do to help tone up while doing other things.
You don't need to set aside time for a class or a full sweat session and, in Somers' words, "You don't need an outfit."
I had the chance to do some Thighmaster-ing with her, and as I tried the moves - squeezing it between my knees, holding it over my head or in front of my chest, I asked if I was doing it right.
She nodded and said, "It's as simple as that. If you can feel it, it's working."
It still felt really easy, and I wasn't sure how much I was really getting toned, but I didn't mean doing some moves with my Thighmaster whenever I wanted to multitask throughout the week.
Overall, I can see why so many people had fun with fitness in the '80s and early '90s
Having grown up a full generation after most of these programs and products made their way into American households, I was pleasantly surprised by these workouts. I really got the sense that they're focused on giving anyone the tools to get a little more active and even more toned.
In my opinion, the routines aren't free of problems (I don't agree with how some of the tapes cover body image and thinness) but they do a pretty great job of making exercise approachable and fun for beginners.
If you're anything like me, following one of Fonda's step-aerobic routines or doing some movies with a Thighmaster before bed might be just approachable enough to keep you from quitting before you start, and just antiquated enough to keep you amused while you move.
Are these programs and equipment as efficacious as, say, HIIT and P90X and other, more modern and intense trends in fitness? Experts today say, eh, probably not. There's a reason why new programs and products have come into fashion.
But these fun, personality-packed '80s and early '90s workouts are definitely good for something - and getting your body moving and your heart pumping a little bit is always better than not doing so at all.
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