Thank You, Jane Fonda: A Brief History of America’s Obsession With Workout Videos

Jane Fonda was once one of America’s most controversial antiwar activists, but she’s cut a more striking figure in history wearing spandex and leg warmers than she did in Army fatigues. As a fitness-video pioneer, Fonda introduced aerobics to America’s living rooms, helping kick-start a massive, enduring, and deeply strange industry. My mom did Fonda’s workouts in our den in the 1980s and ’90s; I’d flop down on the floor next to her and mimic the moves in wild, obnoxious fashion. She eventually moved away from Fonda and cycled through dozens of video workouts — Buns of Steel, various Denise Austin and Kathy Smith workouts, Pilates, and, ultimately, 30 Day Shred, a popular DVD from The Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels. Come to think of it, workout videos soundtracked most of my formative years.

So it was natural that when I reluctantly decided that exercise should become a part of my adulthood, I turned to fitness videos. After college, I inherited my mom’s copy of 30 Day Shred and started doing the routine from my 13-inch laptop. I knew workout videos had once been wildly popular, but in the era of the $40 boutique fitness class and CrossFit fanaticism, exercising alone in front of a screen felt retrograde and embarrassing. I’ve dealt with a lot of confused roommates’ boyfriends sheepishly tiptoeing around me and many incredulous reactions upon confessing my love of workout videos to friends. I’ve annoyed downstairs neighbors with my banging and stomping. I’ve felt like a freak, jumping around and gesticulating wildly, all alone, in spaces the size of prison cells.

I was surprised, then, to see the outpouring of enthusiasm for Fonda when she announced she’d make her original workouts available digitally and on DVD at the beginning of this year. She went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, explaining that her videos marked the beginning of “women being OK with muscles.” DeGeneres enthusiastically pulled up a recent clip of Portia de Rossi working out to a Fonda tape. “Y’all don’t remember this probably, but back then, we [women] were not supposed to be strong and fit,” Fonda said of the ’80s. Solange Knowles confessed on Twitter: “When I was a kid I did Jane Fonda workout videos. I’m an adult, I do Jane Fonda workout videos.” On The Cut, Rebecca Harrington revisited the Fonda videos for a “magical” week. Fonda’s return helped me realize that while I’d technically been alone working out with videos, I was part of a bigger and more passionate community than I’d suspected.

Illustration by Raphaelle Martin.

Illustration by Raphaelle Martin.

Having spent so many hours doing Michaels workout videos in recent years, I was curious about how they’d evolved from the feathered-hair Fonda era. Where did they come from? Why do people love them so much? Have they become more difficult over time, or has nothing changed? Are they a dying format? I took a tour through the last three decades of workout video phenomena, and what I found was a more absurd, sprawling history than I could have imagined.

Jack LaLanne: “The Godfather of Fitness”

While Fonda popularized at-home fitness on VHS, plenty of guided exercise predates her videos. I wanted to locate the inaugural fitness video, which proved more difficult than it sounds — reaching back any earlier than the ’90s quickly exposes the limits of the Internet. So I wrote to Aaron Valdez, a film historian and Internet buff who has a hobbyist obsession with workout videos. He admits it’s difficult to pinpoint a VHS workout that predates Fonda’s, but points out that instructional fitness had been televised for decades prior. (There’s even a film from 1928 called Exercise: A Film Lesson in Health and Hygiene.)

“There are quite a few fitness records out there and they are all horrible,” Valdez wrote me. “They came with a fold-out poster of all the exercises and you just had to interpret the vocal instructions.”

The person who popularized guided exercise on TV was Jack LaLanne, often described as “The Godfather of Fitness.” His black-and-white TV program began airing in the 1950s, when viewers, apparently, had to be begged to participate in the simplest of physical activity. “I’m here for one reason and one reason only: to show you how to feel better and look better so you can live longer,” said LaLanne, a bit out-of-breath while introducing himself in Episode 1, and sporting a canvas jumpsuit stretched tightly over his ’50s-buff bod. “Please, keep your dial right where it is, because I want to become real good friends with you,” he pleaded. Fitness is an objectively wholesome pursuit, but its obsessives always carry creepy cult-leader qualities. LaLanne, who had the demeanor of a lobotomized missionary or a door-to-door salesman, was no different, and by the end of his 24 minutes of simple, no-sweat leg lifts and face muscle movements — all set to a carnival-esque organ soundtrack — you half expect him to congratulate you for letting Jesus into your heart.

Jane Fonda: The Original Workout

Like it did for Harrington, Fonda’s return propelled me to revisit the original video to see if it was really worth all the fuss (and the 17 million copies sold). Released in 1982, The Original Workout has a dramatized opening sequence that looks like an American Apparel ad. No sneakers or equipment, just lots of impractically high-cut leotards and ornamental leg warmers inside a staged ballet studio. I chose the advanced version of the workout, which by today’s standards is still incredibly gentle. Backed by a diverse crew of fitness models — including two token males and a woman who looks suspiciously similar to Taylor Swift — Fonda cycles through a series of dance-like exercises broken down into categories with charmingly old-fashioned names: cardiovascular, arm, leg and hip, waist, abdominal.

Illustration by Raphaelle Martin.

Illustration by Raphaelle Martin.

Most of these exercises are very simple. Like LaLanne’s, they’re designed with the single and admirable intention of getting viewers to move more than they normally would. I credit Fonda for avoiding phony scientific claims and body shaming as a way to captivate her viewers — she’ll only go so far as to say that one of the leg exercises helps with “the wibble-wobbles on the inner thigh.” Fonda’s technique is simple, and her exercises mostly feel like intense stretching. What Fonda followers in the ’80s lacked in cardiovascular capacity or strength, they made up for in superhuman flexibility. Everyone in the video does a full split like it’s nothing. The aesthetics of the video are too distracting for me to return to it, but it’s obvious why Fonda made such an impression on women who’d never worked out before. When I finished, I felt like I’d accomplished something rare: a workout that felt substantive without being difficult enough to provoke dread.

Buns of Steel

Of all the workout videos I passively witnessed as a child, the one that feels the most vivid upon revisiting is Buns of Steel. Perhaps that’s because it’s the creepiest: Instructor Greg Smithey calls himself “the Bunmaster” (also: Dr. Buns, Professor of Bunology, Prince of Pain, and Master of Masochism) and tells his viewers to “squeeze the cheeseburgers” out of their thighs. YouTube commenters have overlooked his essential oddness, instead choosing to complain about the pain this workout brings (and to compare him to Chuck Norris). They’re right: This workout takes the leg portion of Fonda’s debut video and repeats it so many times and from so many angles that Smithey’s soothing monotone eventually begins to sound devilish. Smithey has since gone off the fitness grid — apparently he’s decamped to Vegas, riding around in a truck with a Buns of Steel bumper sticker. But in our present Era of the Butt, a golden opportunity to remaster and reissue Buns of Steel has been missed. Kris Jenner, I’m looking at you.

Richard Simmons: Sweatin’ to the Oldies

My mom never did Richard Simmons, whose populist dance videos got big in the late 1980s, and now I know why. There is no workout painful enough to distract from the overload of unpleasant Jersey Shore boardwalk stimuli in these videos. In other news, Simmons was allegedly MIA for all of 2014. When LAPD showed up at his house to investigate, TMZ writes, they learned “he’s fine.” He’d just been depressed about a knee injury.

Celebrity Workout Videos

Name a celebrity with flagging relevance from the ’80s or ’90s and chances are you’ll find a workout video. To cite a mere dozen: Claudia Schiffer, Heather Locklear, Alyssa Milano, Mel B of the Spice Girls, Cher, Cindy Crawford, Marky Mark, Angela Lansbury, Paula Abdul, La Toya Jackson, Nelly, and a pre-fame Kim Kardashian helping viewers Fit in Your Jeans by Friday. (“I perceive my body as very voluptuous and curvy, and a very healthy body. There’s some people in Hollywood who might perceive me as fat, but I think that’s ridiculous,” she says, in a monologue that sounds like a script reading from her wildly popular video game.)

Watching celebrity workout videos makes me feel as though BuzzFeed incepted the fitness industry in the ’80s and ’90s — and there are countless nostalgia bloggers who’ve dutifully mined these pop-culture gems in recent years. None more passionately than Valdez, who has curated a serious trove of celebrity workout clips on his YouTube page. “I’ve always been interested in crappy video and having weird exercise videos to throw on during parties,” he wrote me. “They’re just so interesting for all sorts of reasons. A lot of the videos make sense. Of course this famous athlete or model has a video. But Sally Struthers has a Fitness Walking video? The Milton Berle workout? You can tell who is cashing in and who is the real deal … [and] they offer insight into the person behind the celebrity.” Since studying these videos, I haven’t been able to shake the wishful image of a Beyoncé–Michelle Obama workout video series.

Tae Bo

Every suburban household probably has a Billy Blanks tape lying around somewhere, purchased at a time when kickboxing promised revolution. As a kid, I remember watching the video with friends a few times not because we wanted to exercise, but because we thought kickboxing seemed like a cool, tomboyish thing to do. Plus, it’s fun. Tae Bo became a craze — generating $80 million in sales by 1999 — because it allowed viewers to feel more like badasses than like people trying to slog through weight loss.

But if there is a fallen hero of workout video, it’s Blanks. His Tae Bo Twitter account is basically a going-out-of-business liquidation event: “Hey Everyone! We are discontinuing the Digital Downloads … Get yours while you can,” Blanks recently wrote. Meanwhile, he’s remained just famous enough for the travails of his personal life to warrant media attention. “Gayle Blanks has filed for legal separation from her husband, Tae Bo creator Billy Blanks,” TMZ reported in 2008. “The reason for the separation? Tae Bo is no longer relevant … just kidding, it’s ‘irreconcilable differences.’” Blanks remarried, moved to Japan, and has long been estranged from his son. Billy Blanks Jr. is a fitness instructor, too, but his father’s legacy has not been enough to ensure automatic success for his video series — he had to compete on Shark Tank to get a fledgling business off the ground.

The Vanillification of Workout Videos

By the time DVDs replaced VHSs, American fitness culture was beginning to grow into the beast it is today. Leotards were out, trendy and impossibly specific workouts — Yogalates, boot camp, dance cardio, “muscle confusion” programs — were in. Maybe this is a result of the aesthetic shift away from the Day-Glo gear and kitschy backdrops featured on the VHSs, but more recent workout videos seem to be strictly functional and increasingly dull. The workout DVDs of the last 10 years have simply mimicked whatever form of exercise is in fashion at gyms or fitness studios — Insanity, Tracy Anderson, power yoga, whatever. They are more effective, more specific, and more intense, to be sure. They taught me how to exercise. But there’s hardly any flash, fantasy, or color. Once working out became such an integral part of American culture, there was no need for fun or novelty — like celebrities, models, or crazy clothes — to draw people in.

At-home DVDs remain incredibly popular, but without the buzziness that accompanies other segments of the American fitness world. In 2012, the New York Times wrote about the enduring popularity of workout videos, and almost everyone quoted is middle-aged. Rather than record their own videos, celebrities now use fitness videos at home for a mundane reason: privacy. “[Tracy] Anderson said that Gwyneth Paltrow, her student and business partner, and Ms. [Jennifer] Lopez both used DVDs when beginning her program,” writes the Times. “‘Gwyneth was like the worst dancer in the entire world,’ Ms. Anderson said, ‘and now she’s great.’”

The Instagram Era

Instagram is changing the workout video the way home-recording software changed music, and the diverse, endlessly watchable world of instructional fitness on Instagram is the perfect antidote to the vanilla workout DVD. Instagram fitness stars have a split second to draw people in before they scroll onward, so they have to find a novel approach: a remote filming location, a jaw-dropping pose, a clever editing tool, or a completely random element. There’s a community of women on Instagram, for instance, who offer tips on how to use little kids as workout partners. I follow one obsessive woman who records most of her videos in a treehouse-like attic — without any context, it appears she’s trapped up there, growing freakishly flexible and strong in preparation for the apocalypse.

At its core, the fitness industry is an exploitation of our deepest insecurities about our bodies. But the workout video, in my view, is the least insidious version of this exploitation. In fact, there’s a real element of empowerment to it — the at-home workout lets people with little money, time, training, or access to physical space exercise on their own terms. It’s an oasis of free self-edification in a sea of prohibitively expensive fluff. Fitness fads will pop up and die, but workout videos are forever.

Carrie Battan (@cbattan) is a writer in New York.

Filed Under: Fitness, Jack LaLanne, Instagram, Tae Bo, Buns of Steel, Tracy Anderson, Jennifer Lopez, jane fonda, V/H/S, Richard Simmons