NEWS Why Vintage Workout Videos Are Better Than Today’s Workouts

Why Vintage Workout Videos Are Better Than Today's Workouts

During the height of the pandemic, our cultural obsession with fitness videos was at an all-time high. Retro icons like Richard Simmons are back exercising, and people are flocking to online fitness classes. As a yoga and fitness instructor for decades, I’m not surprised. We’re all really feeling the pain of being stuck at home and we need to move our bodies.

Thanks to the magic of livestreaming, I went to a Pilates class in New York, a yoga class in Pune, India, and — apparently — I joined a Peloton.

Sometime in 2020, I went back and watched all the videos that made me want to be a teacher in the first place – Patricia Walden’s iconic “Yoga for Beginners” and Alan Barre Pilates collection by Ellen Barrett for Crunch. I rekindled my longtime fascination with teacher Jane Fonda and developed a new one for Dennis Austin. I even tried “Pony” with Richard Simmons. I find myself obsessing over retro workout videos again.

When a vaccine becomes available, I expect my interest to wane. After all, I’m a fitness freak, and I’ve perfected a surprising number of personalized workout routines over the years. Still, honestly, there’s nothing like “8 Minute Abs” circa 1995. You could say it’s just nostalgia, but you’re only partly right. The truth is, there’s something honest, transparent, and joyful about Retro Fitness Workouts that you won’t find anywhere else.

They don’t think you already know how to do everything

I started doing yoga in the 1990s – in a nursing home, actually. Yoga was neither cool nor trendy nor trendy, and the people who were into yoga at the time were mostly older hippies. So the videos that were made at the time — especially the Patricia Walden and Rodney Yi series for Gaiam — didn’t assume you were familiar with any of the poses.

When I walk into a yoga class these days, many instructors just yell out the names of difficult poses and assume you all know what they’re talking about and how to do them. The instructors in this series actually explain what yoga is and why you might want to do it. They rarely use Sanskrit, and when they use Sanskrit names for gestures, they translate them in an understandable way.

Back in the golden age – which was 2000 – no one thought you knew that a dog facing down was something humans wanted to do. In “Yoga for Beginners,” Patricia Walden breaks down each pose like you’ve never done it before. Even the instructor didn’t feel condescending at all. It felt very thoughtful – as if it was okay that I didn’t know anything.

Richard Simmons, my mentor!Harry Langdon/Getty Images

It’s okay to want to look sexy

I don’t know when it becomes taboo to admit that you want to look sexy in a class designed to help you look sexy, but it is. Of course, it’s important that we’ve shifted the cultural conversation about fitness to health, and what I love most about fitness is the way it makes me feel. But part of what fitness makes me feel good about is having confidence in my body — and how I look in spandex.

While I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one chasing firmness and toning for aesthetic reasons, you won’t get that from a lot of the fitness game these days. It all seems to be about peace of mind and some vague notion of health. Again, that’s great! But I also want Buns of Steel™ and Rock Hard Abs™, and I don’t want to feel guilty about that—especially in fitness class.

How fitness trainers in retro videos talk about our motivations is honest. Nobody pretends they’re willing to do a thousand squats for world peace or whatever. The physical goals are written directly in the title, without any pretense. “Do you want that firm tummy?” growls the ridiculously ripped trainer on “8 Minute Abs.” Yes, thank you, I know.

They are fun!

The past few years have been, well, kind of unkind. I don’t need deadpan waifs telling me about my state of mind while I’m working on my core. I want fitness to be a good time. Richard Simmons understood this 40 years ago and he still understands it today. He never tried to elevate fitness classes to some kind of high cultural ideal, which is why he became a household name. “Ready to have a good time?” he squeals happily on “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” Yes sir, of course I am, and I’m willing to look like an idiot and fake swim in my living room to do it.

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda knew how to have a good time while exercising, which is priceless.Harry Langdon/Getty Images

What makes 1982’s “Jane Fonda’s Workout” a cardiovascular masterpiece is its ease. I dare you to spend 30 minutes having her wink at you from under her sweatband and not have a good time. Side note: Jane Fonda was 45 years old when she made these videos. That’s right, when our country’s favorite sex symbol taught us to lift our legs, she was already middle-aged.

Retro Fitness Still Works

Fitness fads come and go, but the human body hasn’t really changed much over the past few thousand years. The conditions required for health have not changed. So while I’m always curious about new things in fitness, what works remains the same: get your heart rate up and move.

I compared the stats for modern Zumba and indoor cycling to “Old Sweat” and “Jane Fonda’s Workout” and guess what? They are all equally valid. In fact, there is basically no noticeable difference.

So, would I go back to modern day workouts? Yes, but I’m also not ditching my old VHS workout guru. I refuse to choose between Richard Simmons and Ally Love. One of the beautiful things the pandemic has taught me is that I have access to all the physical changes I want. I can have leg warmers and novelty wearables, old fashioned fitness discos and super current playlists.

I think fitness should be fun and energizing. Exercise should make you love living in your body. Why not make it a time-traveling fun too?

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