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O Magazine


(Notes Towards
a Brief History of Fitness
as a Film Genre)

Mar Calpena

Any journalist with more or less literary airs will make a great effort to finish his/her feature articles with the most explosive anecdote, or the one that best summarises the whole story. Let’s make it clear from the beginning that this text is a failure in that sense. Mark Twain used to say that truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction needs to adjust to what’s possible. And who would have thought that an icon of counter-cultural opposition to the Vietnam War would give origin to the physical fitness craze of the last three decades, apart from creating the home video industry all by herself? But this is what happened nearly thirty-five years ago.

Aerobics were soon adopted by other cultural spheres
thanks to their leg warmers and pop music.

In 1981, US citizens had forgiven Jane Fonda for having been Hanoi Jane a decade before and, after two Oscars, the actress was living a great professional moment. Besides, she had been able to get over bulimics thanks to ballet, but due to an injury suffered during the shooting of The China Syndrome she had to quit dancing. She found an alternative thanks to trainer Leni Kazden, who introduced her to an up to then almost unknown method called ‘aerobics’. Kazden and Fonda soon joined forces to create a studio in which to teach this discipline, and in which Fonda herself would work as a trainer. In 1980 came the next step, with the publication of a book about the method that became a huge best seller. Back then almost no one had a video recorder at home –even Fonda admits she didn’t buy one until later–, and those who did used it mostly to record TV programmes. A film like Star Wars, thought for the rental market, cost around 120 dollars, and a tape selling 25,000 copies was considered a great success.

A clever although not very successful DIY video producer, Stuart Karl, noticed the potential of the book and contacted Fonda through her then husband, Tom Hayden. Hayden and Fonda had created a project, the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) to promote social justice in California through solar energy, protection of the environment and the defence of tenant rights. Karl was also in favour of New Left ideals, and despite Fonda’s initial reservations to shooting aerobics videos, he persuaded her by arguing that the benefits would help finance CED. Because what Karl sensed was that consumers were ready to pay for a tape that they would use daily, at least in theory. And for a sector, fitness, that was taking its first steps, videos offered the possibility of following lessons from your living room (in the early eighties, gyms were still more Raging Bull than Fame). The first video was shot in a set built by the shooting crew (Fonda’s studio couldn’t be used because the mirrors would have reflected the movements of the only cameraman), with the school’s trainers and users as extras. Jane Fonda’s Workout was launched on April 24th, 1982. On the first month it sold merely 3,000 copies, which went up to 200,000 on the first year. Its total sales amount to 17 million copies. Fonda, who four years ago launched a last DVD with exercises for elderly people (her number 29 of this genre), became the first person who wasn’t an engineer to be featured on Video’s Hall of Fame. It goes without saying that soon appeared all sorts of imitators and alternatives, like Jazzercise –jazz dance became as popular as aerobics in gyms–, Puesta a punto, Eva Nasarre‘s super successful programme, or Sydney Rome’s videos. But the truth is that Jane Fonda’s Workout is to exercise home video what The Birth of a Nation is to film.

Let’s get physical – O Production Company
Let’s get physical – O Production Company

Jane Fonda: I can lift an arm or a leg,
whatever you want.

Let’s get physical – O Production Company

Angela Lansbury: Stretching, She Wrote
(and a very personal view on water aerobics).

Let’s get physical – O Production Company

Celebrities, franchises and videotapes

However, other things were happening in the fitness world outside videotapes. Aerobics had been incorporated to the rising of the gym industry, yoga was little by little getting rid of its joints and patchouli smell and muscle building was ceasing to be merely for peplum actors and gays. Despite the aesthetic mirage of grunge, britpop and heroin chic, those years’ ideal image was a vigorous and healthy body, more Triumph des Willens than Kids: Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford became the queens of the catwalks and home videos (although the emergence of the celebrity phenomenon would also create its own The Ring tapes. For example, Miss Fletcher herself appearing on an exercise video in which she ends up masturbating in a bathtub!).

Gyms’ counter attack would be creating formulas based on accessories, like step and spinning, difficult to practice at home, and opting for scale economies, something that would have great consequences for home videos. Because as the decade advanced, small family gyms started dying to give way to great complexes in which lessons will became standard –before, creating the routines was the responsibility of each instructor– and great fitness conglomerates started buying franchised contents. An example of this is Body Pump, from New Zealand brand Les Mills, or formats linked to brands such as Reebook or Nike. The idea of applying the franchise business to videos has Billy Blanks and his Tae Bo as a forerunner, presenting something like Mortal Kombat turned sport, which for the first time attracted men towards home exercises. Blanks created his model by selling infomercials of packs including the whole method, in which videos were accompanied by a planned day-by-day schedule for one or several months and, sometimes, the necessary gear to practice. That format would be later copied ad infinitum, with titles that caused a real fever the following decade, such as Insanity or P90X, and more so once the Internet started seeing the growth of communities around any practice.

Some of these formats, besides, went the other way around, from being virtual lessons to becoming real-life practice (as is the case of ever present Zumba). Besides, the decade of 2000 would also see the entrance of the ‘wellness’ concept in the collective imagination. Although we’re invited to take efforts to work our abs and butts, on the one hand, on the other we find less aggressive or more exotic exercise techniques, such as Pilates, yoga, ballet physical training (Barre) or belly dancing, which start finding their commercial niche. As the change of the millennium approached, productions increased their features, with many cameras and tropical sets, for instance, and the implied promise that the space between the sofa and the telly was to become our sanctuary.

Tae Bo was 90s TV shop fodder.

Let’s get physical – O Production Company

Geordie Shore‘s Charlotte Crosby’s
DVD sold double the amount of copies than Frozen
the first week after its launch,
and was the first to top a best-selling list in the last
fifteen years. That’s quite something!

Let’s get physical – O Production Company
Let’s get physical – O Production Company

Jillian Michaels is the current queen of fitness DVDs.
30 Day Shred has sold nearly six million copies since it appeared in 2008.

But still, it never made it completely. The appearance of video consoles able to detect movement promised a new experience that in the end has convinced neither videogame players nor fitness practitioners. Today’s dominant school of thought regarding exercises to lose weight is HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, which seems to say that what we need to get a sculptural body are short and very intense training sessions, interrupted by short recovery periods. That is, short and high-impact formats that seem ideal for the Internet and for millennials. There’s where we find the appearance of transmedia stars, above all helped by Instagram, who reach the masses thanks to subscription services (including nutritional advice) or DVDs with several 10-minute routines. Some of the big stars are still around, defending expensive productions (like Jillian Michaels, with more than two million copies sold) and all sorts of celebrities still have their place in the sun, above all in the powerful UK market. But thirty-four years after the publication of the first Fonda video, home training videos are still far from gone. Until around five years ago, Collage Video (something like the genre’s Netflix) still sold VHS tapes, because its target is usually a middle-aged woman, generally non digital native, who views the tape in the living room’s big TV and for whom watching the same content each day is not boring and besides gives her the opportunity to continually assess her own evolution. Why investing on subscription services or trying to find the best YouTubers when the old format is the simplest and easiest to use? At the end of the day, that’s what it was all about: keeping fit; be it with or without the leg warmers.