Aerobics Through the Decades

Think “aerobics” and the name Jane Fonda comes to mind. Her 1982 video made “workout” and “go for the burn” household terms. It remains the best-selling exercise video of all time. However, Fonda did not invent aerobics, as many people believe.

The word “aerobic” technically means “living only in the presence of oxygen”. Here’s how it became the generic term for exercise classes choreographed to music.

In 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper published his book “Aerobics”, which described fitness programs he had created for the U.S. Air Force. In it, he laid down the scientific guidelines that are still being used today for increasing aerobic endurance through activities like walking, running, cycling, and swimming.

If Cooper is the “Father of the Aerobic Revolution”, Jacki Sorensen is the “mother”. The wife of an Air Force officer, she combined music, dance, and Cooper’s principles in 1969 into what she called “aerobic dancing”.

There may also have been a “grandmother” of aerobics. In the 50’s, physical education teacher Sheila Cluff took her ice skating routine and set it to piano music to motivate her high school students. She called her class “cardiovascular dance”.

Cooper and Sorensen could not have foreseen how popular aerobics would become. In 1987, more than 19 million people were doing it in the U.S. alone. For that, Fonda can take a bow.

She also set the standard for fashionable aerobic wear – leotards, sweatband, belt, and leg warmers, which were inspired from her days as a ballet student. So popular did she make this get-up that even women in tropical countries were working out with totally unnecessary leg warmers. More daring was the thong leotard paired with shiny flesh colored tights. Buttocks of all shapes and sizes were visible for all to see. It was not always a pleasant sight.

Fonda’s video was not the first. That honor goes to a 1979 video with the predictable name of “Video Aerobics”. Instructor Leslie Lilien co-starred in subsequent Fonda exercise productions.

“Aerobicise” was the first and longest running aerobic show. People Magazine called it “The Sexiest Show on Television”. In 1982, renowned fashion photographer Ron Harris produced a video based on the show. It became an instant hit particularly with male fans, who were more interested in watching it than doing it.

The popular appeal was mainly due to the prolonged camera shots on the breasts and buttocks of the models. So suggestive were the moves and outfits, the video was considered by some to be soft porn. How times have changed. One of the top selling DVDs on Amazon today is “Totally Nude Aerobics” and “Totally Nude Yoga and Tai Chi”. There are even nude yoga classes offered in, where else, San Francisco.

The Eighties was the golden age of Fonda-style aerobics with its signature high impact jumping moves. By the middle of the decade, a major survey found a high injury rate among participants. Low impact aerobics, a less stressful form of aerobics, in which you always keep one foot on the floor was introduced. There was even non-impact aerobics (now known as the Nia Technique, a leading mind-body program) by Debbie and Carlos Rosas. Aqua aerobics and mini-trampoline aerobics were some variations at minimizing impact.

In 1987, International Association of Fitness Professionals (now called Idea, The Health & Fitness Source) developed the first aerobics certification exam for instructors to scientifically upgrade the industry.

By 1990, the aerobics world was in search of something totally new. Gin Miller delivered when she created step aerobics. It was low impact but challenging. Miller came up with the concept when she was recovering from a knee injury by going up and down her porch step. Ironically, many participants would injure their knees in the following years because of unsafe “crazy” choreography by over-enthusiastic instructors.

Johnny G or Johnny Goldberg, a former cycling champion, created spinning or indoor cycling in 1987 but it wasn’t till the mid-nineties that it really took off. Classes combining martial arts moves with music were already around in 1992, but it took the release of Billy Blanks’ Taebo video in a 1999 TV infomercial to make the format a worldwide phenomenon.

The theme for the 2000’s is fusion – a wide variety of exercise combinations are available. That’s why “group fitness” or “group exercise” has replaced the term “aerobics”.

But Jane Fonda aerobics outfits may yet make a comeback of sorts. The signs are on the horizon - Madonna’s shiny spandex leotard in her recent MTV and retro-1980’s fashion in style magazines. There are reports that sweatbands are already making an appearance in some gyms. Will leg warmers and (shudder) thongs be next?

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