I Tried Jane Fonda’s ‘80s Workout Tapes To See How They Hold Up. When Did Working Out Stop Being This Fun?
I laughed off the suggestion at first. When I think about ‘80s fitness culture, my mind floods with images of men in sweatbands with Tom Selleck–mustaches smoking outside health clubs, and metallic bodysuit-clad women daintily side-stepping to tinny New Wave synth music. Wacky and whimsical, sure. But a viable workout option? Surely not.
My mom warned me not to be so quick to judge; I’d soon realize that there’s much more to Jane Fonda’s workouts than meets the eye. A quick Google search revealed that Fonda was already a certified Hollywood legend when she opened her fitness studio in Beverly Hills in 1979, a move that precipitated her iconic exercise empire. Fonda became a pioneer of women’s fitness, unraveling the toxic knot of misogynistic beliefs that had been holding women back from realizing their full physical potential.
Up until then, women were socially conditioned to be feminine, soft, and effortless; they were supposed to be doting wives and loving mothers, above all else. It wasn’t until 1984 that the women’s marathon was introduced at the Olympic Games. And, as Fonda herself explains in the introductory clip to her 1982 Original Workout, “gyms were primarily for men” at the time.
Fonda taught women that it was okay to “break the ‘weaker sex’ mold,” as she aptly put it in her book; to let loose, get loud, jump about, and feel liberated in one’s body. Fonda has also candidly opened up about her own personal struggles with an eating disorder that developed in her teens, and the role her exercise routines played in helping her recover. “I was doing the workout before I started the business, and it gave me back a sense of control over my body,” she told People in a 2018 interview.
Fonda taught women that it was okay to "break the 'weaker sex' mold."
I was sold: I wanted to let go of my worries and dance along with Jane Fonda. But I also wanted to see if her workouts actually hold up fitness-wise against the plethora of exercise options available today. So, I embarked on a week-long mission of trying five of her most iconic routines. Here’s how it went down.
The OG workout
I figured that Fonda’s first workout would be a good place to start. The Original Jane Fonda Workout has sold over 17 million copies, making it one of the best-selling home videos of all time. On Monday morning, standing in front of my living room TV and dressed in a gym set that hadn’t seen the light of day since lockdown, I was about to find out what all the hype was about.
The video begins, and it suddenly feels like I’m watching the opening scene of Footloose. A swathe of svelte figures in bodysuits and leg-warmers stand in frame, casually contorting their bodies as they warm up.
My first thought is a disappointing one: Why is this supposedly inclusive video populated exclusively with super-slim professional dancers? Fonda’s philosophy of fitness as a form of empowerment clearly still had a long way to go. I put this down to being a sign of toxic times (‘80s diet culture is a minefield that deserves an essay of its own) and continue with the video. Then Fonda emerges, turning to the camera, smiling, as she asks: “Are you ready?”
Although I’ve boldly opted for the 50-minute advanced version of the class, I’m quickly humbled as I realize that this is no walk in the park. Fonda launches straight into some aggressive active stretching, which I approach with caution to avoid the very real risk of hyperextension. This workout is no low-effort gimmick. Within the first five minutes, Fonda is slapping the floor and throwing her head back with feral enthusiasm.
Within the first five minutes, Fonda is slapping the floor and throwing her head back with feral enthusiasm.
The electric atmosphere pulsating through the class is palpable despite the decades that lay between me and the dancers onscreen. Fonda’s posse have smiles plastered across their faces, and they’re constantly whooping. Even though I typically hate HIIT classes, I’m having so much fun that the brief cardio portion is over in a flash.
The remainder of the workout is reminiscent of your typical Pilates class today, with a focus on small, repetitive pulsing movements. And it’s surprisingly hardcore; when the 50 minutes is up, I’m not the only one sweating—even Fonda’s skin has a sheen to it. The class is fast-paced and energetic, but not difficult to keep up with. The only downside is that some of the stretches are quite intense, and seem like they could easily lead to injury. We’re not all as limber as Fonda, who ends the class by slipping into a shoulder stand with apparent ease—a hard pass from me.
Fonda offers a little something for everyone
On Tuesday, I opt for Fonda’s Easy Going Workout, and I notice a definite energy shift from the get-go. I feel a little out of place, considering that Fonda is now surrounded by a far older cohort (who are all still rocking figure-hugging bodysuits, FYI). The music has slowed down drastically; I’m subjected to a calm piano jazz melody that makes me feel like I’ve fallen into a hotel elevator and can’t get out. I should’ve figured this workout was made for a more… mature crowd.
I decide to stick with it. Fonda starts the workout with some less vigorous stretches this time around, before heading over to grab a chair, because it’s now time for the barre. At this, the one token man in the group proclaims “I’ll drink to that, Jane!” to which Fonda laughs in exasperation and responds, “Oh Herb, you don’t drink!”
This gentle burn is a welcome change to the usual shaking I experience in a modern-day barre class (as one barre instructor once told me, “If you’re not shaking, you’re not doing it right”). Although I’m enjoying this more balletic routine, I’m not as engaged as I was yesterday, since it’s a little too slow-paced for me. But, I guess that’s the beauty of it: Fonda didn’t design this routine with me in mind, but rather the seniors among us, who too often get neglected by the fitness community.
Anyway, the music speeds up a little towards the end, and ultimately I’m having a lot of fun, waving my hands in the air and clapping along with Hazel, Shirley, and Herb like I just don’t care.
Stronger, happier, and glad we're past '80s diet culture
Wednesday is the day I confront Fonda’s cardio-heavy New Workout, released in 1985. Cardio and I have always been mortal enemies, so I go into this workout expecting the worst. But, once again, I’m pleasantly surprised: This dance-inspired aerobics routine is like nothing I’ve ever done before. One minute I’m doing the hoe-down, the next I’m running around the room in a circle, clapping (and occasionally bumping into my sofa). I feel like a cowgirl learning how to tap dance. Her Low Impact Workout is another cardio-focused session, designed for people with injuries that prevent them from jumping, but it’s equally as challenging and engaging.
By this point, my limbs are screaming for a rest day, so I take Friday off. When Saturday rolls around, I’m ready to tackle my final workout of the week: Fonda’s Complete Workout. This video is truly comprehensive, with strengthening and aerobic exercises to target every muscle group. As expected, the aerobics portion is an epic dance routine that includes a '50s-inspired hand jive, with some salsa moves sprinkled in. At what point in history did working out stop being this fun?
However, there have been some changes made to fitness culture that I very much appreciate. For instance, at the beginning of the workout, Fonda explains that we should do these exercises to avoid ending up with a “scooped posture” as it looks “less attractive.” Like with most workouts from this time period, the intention is to beautify, not strengthen. Buzzwords like “contouring” and “increased definition” make it sound like our bodies are sculptures that need to be molded into a better shape.
Fonda's rhetoric takes some of the enjoyment out of the experience for me. But I can’t be too hard on her. The lack of body inclusivity and triggering language is, more than anything, symptomatic of an era that promoted ‘fat-burning’ sauna suits, Slim-Fast shakes, Figurine bars and over-the-counter weight loss tablets like Dexatrim.
At the end of the week, I feel stronger, and happier. Fonda’s magnetism is timeless, something that will draw me back to the tapes again and again. There’s a rawness and levity to them that, I believe, is unmatched today.
The question is: Do Fonda’s workouts hold up fitness-wise in the 21st century? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. Many of her moves wouldn’t be out of place in a modern-day Pilates or dance cardio class, and her videos are an accessible option for those of us short on time.
Are they comparable to an F45 class or weight training at the gym? Frankly, no. These classes are not as targeted or hardcore. But they do provide a full body workout that gets your blood pumping and evokes pure, unadulterated joy. Let’s be real: The fact that Fonda, now 85, is still performing her leg-lifts on TikTok shows she must be doing something right.
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