The Evolution Of Fitness Culture Goes Beyond Leotards & ThighMasters

Lena Weib

Jazzercise. ThighMaster. Buns of Steel. Jane Fonda. Zumba. Yoga. While recognizable on their own, together, all of these trends represent a much larger entity: an evolution of fitness culture that spans decades and generations. They also represent a fascinating (and sometimes misguided) female journey of self-worth, confidence, and self-care. And while, for years, the fitness industry pushed and thrived on the agenda of “thin is in,” in recent years, there’s been a significant shift. The fitness culture of today has started to prioritize mindfulness and the mental health benefits of exercise rather than the aesthetics. But how did we get here?

The answer, as you can imagine, is not so simple. In fact, to scratch the surface of the varying drivers behind fitness culture, you’d have to go back… way back. Which is exactly what women’s health and culture journalist Danielle Friedman did in compiling her new fitness opus, Let’s Get Physical. The idea for the book, which dives into the history of women’s workout culture, stemmed from a feature Friedman was working on surrounding the origins of her recent fitness obsession — barre, its creator Lotte Berk, and the method’s eventual entry into the modern fitness world. For those unfamiliar, Berk, a German-born professional ballerina, developed the now world-renowned method in the 1950s as a means to help women (not just dancers) tone, strengthen, and improve flexibility and range of motion.

“I found pretty quickly that there were other Lotte Berks in every other fitness movement of the 20th century,” she says to TZR. “I was convinced that there was a really fascinating and important story there.”

Fascinating indeed. TZR tapped Friedman and other fitness experts to get a brief rundown of some of the major trends that have defined fitness culture over the years, and how they’ve gone from body-focused to mindful.

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1950s Fitness: No Sweat

Exercise culture has been around for centuries (there were reportedly stationary bikes on the Titanic!), but let’s start in the 1950s, a time of rigid gender norms, when female overexertion was highly discouraged. Exercise for women was often minimal and never intended to lead to anything as distasteful as sweating. It was also often done in regular dress attire — including heels! — and centered on keeping the figure slim and trim. Overall, women at the time held the common belief “that if they exerted themselves they would turn into men,” says Friedman. “You know, grow hair in unwanted places, get big legs, or their uterus would fall out.” Yes, you read that right.

To be clear, there were certainly female athletes and those who embraced physical fitness at the time. The ’50s marked the decade of Althea Gibson, the first Black woman to win a tennis Grand Slam title; track and field star Wilma Rudolph, who competed in the 1956 Olympic Games and took home the bronze medal in the 4×100 relay; and Jean Faut, who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1946 through 1953 and is considered by many to be the AAGPBL’s greatest overhand pitcher.

There was also a small but mighty (and very wholesome) fitness trend that hit Americans in this Happy Days-loving era: hula-hooping. Originating in Australia and touted as a worthy form of exercise, U.S. toy manufacturer Wham-O made its own version of the whimsical hoop and sold some 25 million in a matter of months. But even this brief craze exemplifies the sentiment surrounding female fitness in this era: Keep it light, fun, easy, and presentable.

1960s Fitness: Aerobics

The anti-sweat sentiment that reigned in the post-war era changed with the coming of a few key fitness pioneers and one very crucial invention: television. The little box that seemingly overnight became a fixture in the lives of many Americans had a hand in making fitness and exercise more accessible to everyone, women in particular. Pioneers like Jack LaLanne and Debbie Drake stepped into living rooms across the country and helped change the conversation, explains Friedman, helping women better understand and embrace the benefits of exercise.

“They basically said … ‘It’s OK if you sweat’ and taught that ‘under every curve there’s a muscle, so no muscle, no curve,’” she explains. “And it was really planting the seed that exercise was something that respectable ladies could do and could turn to as a beauty tool.” Strengthening movements like pushups and jumping jacks were taught and encouraged to be done regularly at home, but within the mission to slim, tone, and prevent weight gain, says Friedman.

Then came the big shift. Up until the 1960s, there was still some debate about how healthy intense exercise was for men and women alike. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, an Air Force flight surgeon and director of the Aerospace Medical Laboratory in San Antonio, came forward with a game-changing book titled Aerobics. It laid out in clear terms his extensive research on cardio exercise and how putting stress on the heart and lungs in a strategic way was not only safe, but incredibly beneficial for men and women.

“The book became a huge bestseller,” says Friedman. “It introduced the word ‘aerobic’ into the cultural lexicon and really got both men and women moving for the first time.”

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Coincidentally, another tidal wave in the form of the women’s movement was also taking form at this time. And while one might typically associate this revolution with reproductive health and rights, Friedman explains that physical strength was also a factor. This era saw a rise in female runners and long-distance running as a form of exercise.

“Before the ’70s it was believed to be dangerous for a woman to run more than 2 miles, so women were not allowed to enter road races and Olympic participation was limited when it came to running,” says Friedman. Trailblazers like Kathrine Switzer (the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967) proved these antiquated theories wrong, encouraging women to take up jogging for sport and feel-good endorphins — runner’s high is a thing.

1970s Fitness: Movin’ And Groovin’

This sudden enlightenment around fitness brought with it aerobic phenomena in the form of dance-cardio sensations Jazzercise (founded by Judi Sheppard Missett in 1968) and aerobic dancing (created by Jacki Sorensen in 1969). These two women, while very different, shared a similar approach to physical fitness that combined their knowledge of Cooper’s work and research with their backgrounds as professional dancers. It also laid the groundwork for a different type of fitness routine that incorporated music and high energy levels for a fun, full-body routine that was impactful both physically and emotionally.

The ’70s was a decade culturally defined by dance — the disco era, Broadway musicals, etc. “I means, A Chorus Line was the Hamilton of its day,” says Friedman. “Dance was in the zeitgeist and a lot of women were inspired by that. A market grew for women who were seeking a safe space to dance and get fit with abandon outside the home and among, well, other women. This led to the subsequent rise of in-person fitness classes. So, this was significant that [women] were, in really large numbers saying, ‘OK, I’ll be back in an hour and half’ and taking that time to do something that made them feel good and feel strong.”

1980s Fitness: The Fonda Effect

When mulling over the fitness culture of the 1980s, you’d be hard-pressed not to have Jane Fonda come to mind immediately. The actor, already known for her sleek physique, opened her regional workout studio in Beverly Hills in 1979, published a fitness book in 1981, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, and followed it with her first workout video. This proved to be a catalyst for what was nothing short of a home-video phenomenon that included the typical ’80s trope of leotard-clad women in leg warmers and headbands romping around to upbeat tunes. Celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Cher, Alyssa Milano, Estelle Getty, and even Angela Lansbury (!) all caught on the home-video hustle and released their own workouts during this time. “By the late ’80s, there was something like 500 workout videos produced every year,” says Friedman.

It also introduced American consumers to a new wave of workout programs and fitness pros, including the likes of Denise Austin, Richard Simmons, Billy Blanks, and Tamilee Webb. For Webb, who’s created a total of 22 videos for the cult-famous Buns of Steel franchise, this home-video craze allowed her the opportunity to bring fresh, alternative fitness methods to the masses. Yes, steel buns were the goal, but by way of various techniques and tools that extended past traditional squats and lunges, including light dumbbells, bands, and even Tae Bo.

1990s Fitness: Yoga

While there are many notable fitness trends that popped up in the ’90s — the aforementioned Tae Bo was a big one that picked up steam — there was certainly a standout that surfaced thanks to its celebrity following that included Madonna, Christy Turlington, and Jennifer Aniston: yoga. “Women were getting really burned out and even injured from working out in such an intense (and not always safe) way,” says Friedman. Yoga, with its meditative and centering elements, connected the body and soul and encouraged quiet introspection.

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Although the practice of yoga is far from new — its Indian origins date back some 5,000 years — its softer focus on the mind-body connection attracted a whole new modern audience. Suddenly, yoga and Pilates were being offered on the class rosters at local gyms and YMCAs, and boutique studios were launching across the country, providing a gentler and more mindful alternative to the high-intensity workouts of the previous eras.

2000s Fitness: Specialized Boutique Fitness

The yoga and subsequent Pilates fad that hit in the late ’90s introduced an early-millennium movement that burns brightly to this day: specialized boutique fitness studios. The demand for alternative ways to work out the body and mind hit a new high, and more intimate, focused fitness studios began to surface to fill that need. Brands like SoulCycle, Barre Method, and Orangetheory emerged, offering luxury facilities and pricey memberships that typically started at about $100 per month or $30 a class, which was once unheard of.

“A lot of the fitness trends we’ve seen can be linked to millennials coming of age, having disposable income, and having been reared with this mindset of optimization,” Friedman says. “They’re seeing exercise as a way to achieve goals that feels really good and productive.”

This also coincided with the tech boom of the 2000s that allowed us to track everything from our steps and heart rate to our daily meditation practice and sleep cycle. These intense and tailored fitness regimens offered a way for millennials to feel accomplished and in control of their environments, says Friedman. Trailblazing apps like Fitbit, Strava, and Nike Run Club were responsible for creating a sort of tracking frenzy among devoted users. (We all know that person who can’t call it a night unless they put in their 10,000 steps.)

Fitness Today: The Mindful Era

So where does that leave us today? Well, the early 2010s saw the boom of Instagram, TikTok, and the entry of a buzzy term used at ad nauseam today: wellness. Increased rates in chronic diseases led to people seeking alternative ways to care for themselves from the inside out. And with social media taking trends and body-positivity movements viral in a matter of days, holistic healing methods, clean/natural diets, and mind-focused exercise have been pushed to the forefront.

Thanks to social media, consumers are now more aware that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that the goal of fitness and wellness shouldn’t revolve around achieving a specific body image. “When one woman who wants to stand up for body positivity and makes a post about self-love and hundreds of thousands of other women cosign that, you now have this collective audience and group of people [advocating for this message],” says veteran celebrity trainer Jeanette Jenkins, creator of The Hollywood Trainer Club.

Feeling and looking physically fit will always be a driving force to exercise, but consumers are now better understanding the benefits a consistent fitness routine can have on one’s mental health and confidence. “Years ago, I would tell people I was training, ‘You have your physical body and you have your emotional body, and if you don’t combine those two together, you’re not going to make it,’” Webb says. “Our emotional body is what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, and what we’re seeing. So if I’m training you and you tell yourself you can’t do a specific movement, the body will follow that. So, let’s rephrase that.”

The pandemic has only perpetuated the reign of mindfulness and mental health. With so many prioritizing mobility and fitness as a means to combat anxiety and depression, a new wave of digital-driven workouts has taken over. Brick-and-mortar fitness studios around the world quickly pivoted to digital formats, a trend that experts say isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Everyone was in quarantine and depressed and stuck in their homes, so I went live with my workouts to help uplift people,” Jenkins says. “People wanted other options.”

As it happens, more and more fitness brands are catching on to this physical and digital hybrid approach. The Class, a cathartic workout experience that melds classic high-intensity movements like jumping jacks, squats, and burpees with intentional moments of meditation and introspection, picked up quite a following over the last two years. Its streaming classes have garnered the attention of Naomi Watts and Alicia Keys.

Breath-focused apps like Wim Hof have also created some buzz, encouraging a path to optimal body and mind health via breathing exercises, a concentrated mindset, and gradual exposure to cold. This trifecta is said to result in a plethora of benefits that include improved immune function, increased energy, reduced stress, and better sleep.

In addition, the last two years has seen a meteoric rise in at-home fitness equipment and programs. Does the name Peloton ring a bell? For context, the uber-popular fitness company, known for its stationary bike and treadmill, went from 511,000 connected fitness subscribers in 2019 to 2.33 million in 2021. Other key players in the home gym game include boxing app Liteboxer, Mirror, and Tonal.

That said, Jenkins foresees a return to the “human experience” in the coming year and beyond. “People crave human interaction,” she says. “They want to see someone working out while they do it too.” The trainer explains the future will likely include “a balance” of in-person exercise in a more contained and intimate environment (not auditorium-filled Jazzercise status) while people also continue to enjoy virtual and digital workouts that can be tailored and stacked to meet one’s specific needs.

“It’s beautiful, because health is now a higher priority than it was before,” Jenkins says. “I think we’re going to continue to grow in that way.”

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