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