December 2015

Fitness Fads

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

There are more than 150,000 fitness and health clubs operating worldwide. About 20 percent of those are located in the United States and are made up of about 50 million members; of course approximately 67 percent of people with memberships never actually use them. Interestingly, Savannah, Georgia is the top spending fitness city in the United States. But, have we always been obsessed with fitness?

As early as 1936, at age 21, Jack LaLanne opened one of the nation’s first gyms in Oakland, California. That gym became a prototype for dozens of similar gyms using his name. And long before Bodies by Jake, Jack hosted the fitness television program The Jack LaLanne Show from 1953 to 1985.

In the 1960s, we saw a slow introduction of exercise machines into the existing, although rare, strength training gyms of the time. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger and the movie Pumping Iron in the 1970s that made weight training increasingly popular. Fun fact: In 1968, a 21-year-old Schwarzenegger lost a body building competition to then 54-year-old LaLanne declaring, “That Jack LaLanne is an animal!”

In the 1980s fitness tapes were booming, and before we knew it, fitness was more than a trend; it is a booming industry.

In high school, circa 1991, I dated Brian Mancino. He worked at Jack LaLanne as a lifeguard. The chlorine was so strong that he always smelled like a swimming pool…and ice cream (he worked at Carvel too). I would visit him, pedal for 20 minutes on a stationary bike, and watch the aerobics classes for pure entertainment.

My mom did aerobics. She was a physical education teacher, so she was, in fact, always doing something exercise-related—and doing that something in her hand-sewn velour sweat suits with coordinating grosgrain ribbon trim. That’s right, Mom made her own sweat suits. Fitness was serious business. Many of my friends were her students; and to this day, when I see Kirstie Johnson, she still says something about my mom’s sweat suits.

While I would love to give my mom the credit, it was actually Jane Fonda who launched aerobics onto the international scene, in 1982, with her videos—all 23 of them, which over the course of 13 years would sell a whopping 17 million copies.
But, she was no match for Milton Teagle Simmons a.k.a. Richard Simmons and his candy striper shorts and bedazzled tank tops. After the success of his gym, “Slimmons” (true story) in Beverly Hills, Simmons cashed in on overweight folks who wanted to sweat to the oldies with more than 40 videos (I stopped counting), which included Sweat Your Pants Off; No Ifs, Ands or Butts; and Sit Tight. God bless him for his sarcastic wit, his work to help folks lose more than 12,000,000 collective pounds, and his ability to fully embrace his frizz.

Could it have been Olivia Newton John’s platinum hit “Let’s Get Physical” that helped fuel the fire for Simmons and Fonda? After all, the song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and won the Billboard Award for Top Pop Single.

Because I take my job seriously, I forced myself to watch the video which featured a sweaty, lusty Olivia, dressed in a tight leotard, posing (I think) as a gym teacher (sorry mom) trying to make overweight, and poorly dressed men healthy. Which then turns into a shower scene. And suddenly the overweight guys are tanned, and oiled, muscle men in speedos. Which leads me to believe this song actually had zero to do with exercise, as we may commonly define it.

In my tween years, I would wake up early on Saturdays, run downstairs, flip on the TV and workout with Gilad’s Bodies in Motion. The camera would start wide, with a panoramic shot of the Hawaiian Islands, and slowly zoom in on Gilad and three or four other folks, with their mats in the sand, the ocean glistening behind them, and 30 minutes of toning and stretching ahead of them. Then my parents bought a Nordic Track, at which point I would pretend I was cross-country skiing for 30 minutes in our rec room, graced with orange shag carpet.

The Home Shopping Network launched in 1982, and fitness fads were quick to embrace the new medium. Likewise, in 1984, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated regulations that governed commercial content on television, and infomercials were born, exploding in the 1990’s with motivational products: the shake weight; eight-minute abs; the thigh-master; the ab roller; buns of steel—all guaranteed to deliver results, as soon as you removed it from your front porch, unpacked, assembled, and used it. When all of the above are used simply as a hamper, results may vary.

Similarly, fad diets are as abundant as the grains of sand on the beach: low carb; no carb; Atkins; juicing; cleansing; South Beach diet; Stillman diet; Beverly Hills diet; The Cabbage Soup diet; The Zone diet; and my personal favorite, the Paleo a.k.a. Cave Man Diet. When is the last time you saw a cave man? Um, 13,000 years ago, give or take. Nuts and berries didn’t really pan out for them, so I should adopt this diet why?

The bottom line is this. Despite nearly a century of fitness fanaticism, and all of the above, it is your self-determination alone that will govern whether you are fit or not. So in the words of Jim Rohn, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”

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