The his­tory of aer­o­bics:

Stretch­ing, leo­tards, as­tro­nauts and hol­ly­wood roy­alty: mia tim­pano ex­plores the ori­gins of the cheesy fit­ness trend.

Frankie - - CONTENTS -

Stretch­ing, leo­tards, as­tro­nauts and Hol­ly­wood roy­alty

Ev­ery day, ev­ery­where, hu­mans shuf­fle into gym­na­si­ums, shak­ing their butts to the rhythm of the night in time with other peo­ple for the pur­pose of get­ting fit. But it wasn’t al­ways so. There were no con­gre­ga­tions in An­cient Rome or Me­sopotamia do­ing thrusts, rum­bas and grapevines (as far as we know). The phe­nom­e­non of ‘aer­o­bics’ – aka ex­er­cise de­signed to get the heart pumping while you lis­ten to chart-top­ping hits – is a re­cent one, and if you want to blame it on any­thing (or of­fer your con­grat­u­la­tions, de­pend­ing how much you ap­pre­ci­ate the hu­man form in ly­cra), then point a big, fat fin­ger at World War I – be­cause that’s when this shit started.

As you no doubt learnt in high school his­tory class, many peo­ple were killed dur­ing this war. Mostly they were dudes, which al­legedly left Bri­tain with “two mil­lion su­per­flu­ous women”. So, if you were a dame want­ing to lock down a Y-chro­mo­some-holder – as was the tra­di­tion and eco­nomic ne­ces­sity at the time – you had to up your babe game. Fast. But how? Peo­ple didn’t ‘work out’. (At least, work­ing-class peo­ple didn’t – iron­i­cally.) Their days were spent at the fac­tory, which didn’t leave them with a dewy, man-get­ting glow. One-on-one ex­er­cise lessons were on of­fer, sure, but with a price tag only the su­per-rich could af­ford. What was a lady pleb to do?

One per­son held the an­swer – a woman by the name of Mary Bagot Stack. The British phys ed teacher, who’d paid a visit to the Hi­malayas and gone ape-shit over yoga, re­turned to 1920s Lon­don with a vi­sion: to run fit­ness classes for the ev­ery­day lady set to mu­sic, in­cor­po­rat­ing dance, cal­is­then­ics and rhyth­mic ex­er­cises. It was the first pub­lic ex­er­cise class, ever. And since it was so cheap (half a crown to join, and a six­pence per ses­sion), it went off, to quote Mary’s daugh­ter Prunella, “like a bomb”. The first pub­lic classes in Hyde Park at­tracted 160,000 peo­ple, plus the pa­parazzi of the era (news­reel crews), des­per­ate to cover this new thing: struc­tured ex­er­cise for ev­ery­one. Op­er­at­ing un­der the name of ‘Women’s League of Fit­ness and Beauty’, Mary’s mass-mar­ket in­ven­tion went from strength to strength – es­pe­cially as Europe braced it­self for an­other war, and Bri­tain’s gov­ern­ment launched a health cam­paign de­scrib­ing phys­i­cal fit­ness as “a mat­ter of na­tional im­por­tance”. But groov­ing to the beat with all your friends didn’t re­main so­ci­ety’s pre­ferred form of ex­er­cise. Other sports took over in ’50s and ’60s schools. Net­ball. Hockey. Sports where you throw things and work as a team to de­stroy an­other team that also wants to throw the thing you’re hold­ing. Rhyth­mic ex­er­cise would be­come rel­e­vant again, though. Just not in Bri­tain. Not even on Earth. No, the next time aer­o­bic fit­ness would be­come nec­es­sary for hu­mans would be in space.

It started as a way to help NASA’S as­tro­nauts deal with the Earth’s grav­ity, after spend­ing ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time float­ing around in rock­ets and shut­tles and beat­ing the Soviet Union to put a flag on the moon. But Dr Ken­neth Cooper – who came up with the fit­ness regime with Colonel Pauline Potts while punch­ing the clock at the US Air Force in the ’60s – saw scope for non-as­tro­nauts to get some­thing out of it, too. You see, Kenny had ob­served that folks with Pop­eye-grade mus­cles couldn’t nec­es­sar­ily run, swim or cy­cle for very long, so he started mea­sur­ing sus­tained per­for­mance in terms of a per­son’s abil­ity to use oxy­gen. Then he pub­lished a book de­tail­ing the work­out, and used the word ‘aer­o­bic’ to de­scribe it (lit­er­ally mean­ing ‘with air’). Fi­nally, he did some­thing no one else had done be­fore him: he added an ‘s’ to the end, mak­ing his fin­ished book ti­tle Aer­o­bics. And thus, the word (and the­ory) were born.

Aer­o­bics was not with­out its de­trac­tors. Bar­bara Wal­ters called Ken­neth a “fraud”, and car­di­ol­o­gist Henry Solomon wrote a book of his own, The Ex­er­cise Myth, which at­tempted to de­bunk Ken’s cen­tral the­sis: that healthy peo­ple should reg­u­larly put their bod­ies un­der pres­sure. The whole no­tion of ex­er­cise as medicine and

pre­ven­tion as an ap­proach to good health fully weirded peo­ple out – even the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. But Ken was a man on a mis­sion, set­ting up the Aer­o­bics Cen­tre in Dal­las – a com­plex con­tain­ing a 40-room ho­tel and lab­o­ra­tory, de­signed to at­tract cham­pag­neguz­zling busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives who needed to learn the value of car­dio­vas­cu­lar fit­ness or die. As for the Reg­u­lar Joe, they could work out on their own. And they did. By the ’70s, gyms were packed with fel­las. But where could a lady go to get her fit­ness fix? Once again, a woman would change the game – only this time, she wasn’t a fit­ness ex­pert. It was Acad­emy Award-win­ning ac­tress Jane Fonda, aka Bar­barella, aka the daugh­ter of Henry Fonda, aka Hol­ly­wood roy­alty, and a woman who would later re­veal her in­tense and en­dur­ing strug­gle with bulimia. Ex­er­cise was how Jane coped with shit in her life (and at­tempted to keep her eat­ing dis­or­der in check). But after in­jur­ing her foot on the set of The China Syn­drome, the sex sym­bol was un­able to per­form her reg­u­lar bal­let rou­tines. A new work­out was re­quired, and she found it in a Cal­i­for­nian gym run by Leni Caz­den, who used long-du­ra­tion ex­er­cise to bat­tle her own ad­dic­tion to smok­ing. Jane didn’t just dig Leni’s aer­o­bics rou­tines – she lit­er­ally bought in. By 1979, they’d opened their own fit­ness cen­tre in Bev­erly Hills, Jane and Leni’s Work­out, where Jane her­self would lead classes.

By the time she’d re­leased Jane Fonda’s Work­out Book, which spent two years on The New York Times best­seller list, she’d be­come Amer­ica’s big­gest name in fit­ness. But she was about to get big­ger. It was the early ’80s, and a new tech­nol­ogy was just be­gin­ning to en­ter homes: the VCR. Not ev­ery­one had a player (Jane didn’t even know any­one with a VCR at the time), but a New Yorker called Stu­art Karl was de­ter­mined to get more video­tapes into the mar­ket. “Fill­ing the gap be­tween Jaws and Deep Throat” was how he de­scribed his oper­a­tion – his range in­cluded tapes about home improve­ment and how to per­form CPR. One evening, while tak­ing a stroll, Stu­art’s wife stopped in front of a Jane Fonda Work­out Book dis­play and wished she could get fit with­out hav­ing to con­tend with the (mostly male) crowds at the gym. In­stantly, Stu­art sprang into ac­tion, hus­tling Jane for a video – and talk­ing pol­i­tics at the same time. They be­lieved in the same things, so Jane agreed to take part, bring­ing her trade­mark aer­o­bic rou­tines and bal­let-in­spired aes­thetic to the small screen (hence the leg warm­ers). The orig­i­nal cas­sette sold 200,000 copies in its first year, and held the num­ber one spot on the Bill­board chart for 145 weeks. Jane Fonda work­outs be­came the big­gest-sell­ing videos of all time, cu­mu­la­tively sell­ing 17 mil­lion copies (that’s a lot of land­fill). But it changed how peo­ple ex­er­cised. Like Mary Bagot Stack’s fit­ness rev­o­lu­tion some 60 years ear­lier, the pub­lic once again had ac­cess to rhyth­mic ex­er­cises set to mu­sic – and they bloody loved it. Women felt em­pow­ered. Jane even re­ceived let­ters from peo­ple in Guatemalan mud huts. And aer­o­bics in­struc­tors leapt onto TV screens world­wide. In 1990s Aus­tralia, Aer­o­bics Oz Style be­came es­sen­tial view­ing – par­tic­u­larly if you were a young lady-lik­ing gent dis­cov­er­ing your sex­u­al­ity, or a dude in prison (the main sources of one Oz Style in­struc­tor’s fan mail).

To­day, aer­o­bics en­dures in so many forms: spin classes; step classes; aqua aer­o­bics; in­ter­val train­ing; Car­men Elec­tra’s strip­tease aer­o­bics (which is very pop­u­lar in Swe­den, by the way). Then, of course, there’s com­pet­i­tive aer­o­bics, a sport unto it­self. Ken­neth Cooper is still go­ing strong in Dal­las, run­ning long dis­tances while yelling, “Yay for aer­o­bics!” (not his ac­tual words), and the Women’s League of Fit­ness and Beauty still op­er­ates un­der the name The Fit­ness League. True, there aren’t so many G-string leo­tards these days, but just wait. If aer­o­bics has taught us any­thing, it’s that you should al­ways an­tic­i­pate a come­back.

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