Exercise Time Warp

I spent a week with Jack LaLanne, Jane Fonda, and Jillian Michaels. Who’s the best fitness guru of them all?

See the rest of Slate’s Fitness Issue.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve crunched my way through almost 50 years of exercise instruction. As the decades progressed, my “old back porch” became my “buttocks” and finally my “tush.” I discovered that the jumping jack is immutable, but there are many ways to do a sit-up. I went from barely breaking a sweat to being drenched. And I was struck by the great American paradox: The more strenuous our exercise regimens have gotten, the fatter we’ve become.

I started my historical fitness tour with Jack LaLanne, a pioneering figure who’s still fit at age 96. [Update, Jan. 24, 2011: LaLanne died Sunday and had reportedly been exercising every day up until his death.] LaLanne was one of the first instructors to understand that the new medium of television could bring exercise to the masses and allow those masses to prance around in the privacy of their living rooms. I watched a week’s worth of remastered broadcasts circa 1962. Then I skipped ahead two decades and followed Jane Fonda through her original 1982 Workout, one of the best-selling videotapes in history (she says she sold 17 million copies), and no wonder given the picture of her perfect fortysomething body on the cover. Finally, I let myself be bossed around by Jillian Michaels, self-described as “TV’s toughest trainer,” who found fame as the fitness guru for the morbidly obese contestants on The Biggest Loser. Her 30 Day Shred is one of today’s top-selling exercise DVDs.

Watching LaLanne was more of an emotional workout than a physical one. LaLanne began broadcasting his half-hour exercise program in 1951, and it ran for three decades. Each of the shows I watched started with him asking the children he knew were glued to the TV to be his “little helpers” and “go get mother.” His viewers were pre-feminist housewives who were busy scrubbing and polishing while sucking down Salems and giving birth to boomers like cats dropping litters. I was one of those boomers, and I remember trying to follow his moves, not because I was a precocious exercise fan, but because the alternative was watching the farm report.

Seeing these broadcasts, I was astounded all over again by LaLanne’s physical presence. At the time these shows aired, he was 47 and his measurements were 48-28-35. Go to any gym today, and the weight room will be full of guys with enormous arms and chests and small waists, but men didn’t look like that in the 1960s. Nor did they shave their armpits and wear jumpsuits and ballet slippers. But LaLanne had such a winning, evangelical confidence that viewers couldn’t help being won over. He spoke directly to these women, and he wanted their lives to be better: “What cute gals today! Think of the thousands of people sitting around letting their bodies decay!” He wanted them to stop smoking, to eat more salad, and to do exercises with him. Actually, not exercises—that was an intimidating word. LaLanne had them doing trimnastics, funnastics, or slimnastics.

Despite LaLanne’s unceasing energy, these vintage workouts are barely more strenuous than brewing a pot of tea. There were jumping jacks—but rarely more than five or six. For our abdomen (“the old front porch”) we got on the floor and pulled our knee into our chest; beginners were told to do only one or two, while “advanced students” did four. Then we sat at an angle in a chair and did a scissors with our legs a few times—beginners were told not to even try. The off-stage organist playing such chestnuts as “Daisy Bell(“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do”) made it all seem even more old-fashioned.

This was better than nothing, but I was constantly aware that LaLanne’s own amazing body did not come about because of such delicacy. I spoke about this with Jan Todd, who was once the world’s strongest woman, and today, at 58, can still dead-lift 300 pounds. Todd is a historian of exercise and co-director of the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas. “The great deception in the whole history of fitness is that people tend to market what they don’t do,” she explained. According to Todd, many famous musclemen of the 20th century, including Charles Atlas, sold appealingly easy exercise programs, whereas their own bodies—like LaLanne’s—were created by putting in hours at the gym pumping iron.

Todd does give LaLanne credit for changing the culture. He presented a vision that it was possible to change your body. He realized that he could help people in their own homes from afar. He stressed that exercise needed to be consistent, but didn’t have to be complicated or require a lot of equipment—his basics were a chair and a piece of rubber resistance tubing he sold as his “glamour stretcher.” (Cut out of the retro DVDs available on his Web site are the commercial breaks where LaLanne hawked his vitamins and supplements and his juicer.)

In her book Ultimate Fitness, Gina Kolata writes that we have alternated between belief in the life-enhancing necessity of strenuous exercise and fear that arduous exertion is deadly. The 1920s were a high point: People played tennis and swam, worked out with weights and Indian clubs. Then the Great Depression made exercise seem like a frivolous expenditure of energy—starving was an easier way to keep slender. For decades after the Depression exercise was controversial—the medical profession declared that heart patients and people over 40 should avoid it.

Then, Kolata writes, it was time for another shift. In the mid-1950s, a report found American children to be pathetically out of shape. One of the first acts of John F. Kennedy’s presidency was to convene a conference on physical fitness. Yet Americans of the 1960s didn’t look like we do today. Now two-thirds of Americans are over their ideal weight, and of those, 35 percent are obese, meaning they have a body mass index of more than 30. In LaLanne’s heyday, it would have been unthinkable to broadcast The Biggest Loser—in 1960 only 13 percent of Americans were obese. The mean height and weight for a woman in her 20s in 1960 was 5-feet-3 and around 128 pounds; today, the mean figures are 5-feet-4 and approximately 157 pounds.

In 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper published a book on fitness called Aerobics, a word he coined. It was a best-seller and helped to convince Americans that exercise could make them healthier—it just wasn’t going to be easy.So when Jane Fonda released her 1982 video, it was to a world ready to sweat. Watching her tape today was another trip in the time machine. There was Jane with her fluffy hair and her legwarmers, and I was immediately transported to the exercise studios of my early adulthood, where I bounced and windmilled for hours. Millions of us did, hoping that we would end up with the impossibly lissome, ideally proportioned body of the middle-aged movie star.

The Fonda tape—and I could get it only on VHS—has two programs, a half-hour workout for beginners and an hourlong one for advanced practitioners. Both feature an endless loop of droning electronic music, which recent experience leads me to believe has been repurposed in the 21st century to madden Verizon customers put on hold.

There are jumping jacks and other cardio, but none of this is particularly strenuous. What killed me, as it did in the 1980s, were the leg and rear end lifts, many done at a sprintlike pace. Because of her uncanny flexibility, Fonda is able to practically touch her leg to her head while lying on her side. This superhuman stretchiness is a reminder that, unlike Jack LaLanne or Jillian Michaels, Fonda is not your pal or your coach. She has a distant, ethereal quality—you never forget that she is a celebrity who is allowing you into her studio, letting the camera linger in a close-up on her perfect torso. You secretly know you could lift your legs for as long as she was married to Tom Hayden, and you’d never look like her.

What’s really distinct from today’s workouts is Fonda’s arm regimen. There’s a lot of arm swinging for what Fonda calls our pectorals (and what LaLanne called our bust). Advanced students are told they can strap on one- to two-pound weights, and the instructions on the box reassure: “Don’t worry. Women do not develop bulgy muscles with weights.” Thirty years ago, women were worried about looking masculine if they lifted something heavier than a croissant. It was unimaginable that someday we would have a first lady who would proudly show off her defined deltoids, her beautiful biceps.

Arm musculature notwithstanding, was Jane Fonda a good workout guru? Historian Todd says that the original Fonda Workout didn’t make particularly good use of its viewers’ time. Fonda’s debut tape (and to be fair, a long series of refinements and improvements followed) didn’t include enough aerobics for calorie burning nor enough resistance for full-body definition. And all that bouncing led to injuries. But Todd also says Fonda was a pivotal figure in American fitness. “She was the first major celebrity figure known for her looks and body to present this dream to the public and say, ‘If you do this, you can look like this.’ ” Fonda also smashed the idea that a sexy body was only an endowment of young women and that physical decline and loss of desirability were inevitable.

The generation of women that followed Fonda grew up knowing that sports weren’t just for boys, and realizing muscles made them more attractive, not less. Title IX, the law that outlawed discrimination in sports instruction in school, helped spawn females ready to compete at the fiercest levels. Extreme sports became popular for men and women, and a new feminine ideal was born: a body that was visibly strong.

Having never watched The Biggest Loser, I didn’t know who Jillian Michaels was when I put in her DVD. She is a petite, taut woman with a manner as firm as her abs, which are always exposed between her sports bra and her low-riding sweat pants. (She also hawks a controversial line of diet supplements.) She’s not quite a drill sergeant, but I kept thinking how much the world has changed when the exercise instructor you invite in your home now says such things as, “I want your heart rate up—I want you gargling your heart” and “I want you guys to feel like you’re gonna die.” (Yes, she actually says that. And yes, you do.)

Michaels’ program offers three 20-minute sessions of increasing intensity. Each workout alternates short circuits of cardio, strength, and abdominal training. There’s a long history of hucksters who sell the promise of fitness for little investment of time, so I was skeptical that a 20-minute workout would be thorough and strenuous. Half-way through Michaels’ DVD, through, I was begging for Jack LaLanne to tell me four sit-ups were enough. In Michaels’ program, you use multiple muscle groups simultaneously—while you do a set of squats, you also lift weights overhead—and not the puny one-pounders that Jane Fonda touted.

Michaels’ customers expect to be in agony, something that would have been unthinkable to the “gals” doing trimnastics with LaLanne. She pushes, cajoles, and tells us to move our “tush,” but gone are the ballistic movements of the 1980s. Instead the abdominal crunches are much harder for being done slowly. Michaels says that if you put in the effort she demands for the full 20 minutes, “it takes the place of hours of phoning it in at the gym,” which was certainly true for me. I didn’t mind her annoying techno-pop soundtrack, because my pulse was pounding so hard in my ears I could barely hear it.

Afterward, collapsed in a heap, I felt rather proud—here I was a former “little helper” of Jack LaLanne’s who half a century later was getting shredded.

Also in Slate, Emily Yoffe writes that Jack LaLanne was ahead of his time not only physically but psychologically, the Trending News Channel honors LaLanne’s life with a video montage, and the Brow Beat blog notes that LaLanne credited his health “to a lifelong devotion to ‘clean thoughts and dirty girls.’ ”

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