A fitness craze swept the country in the 1980s, an obsession with health, beauty, youthfulness and sex appeal that had profound effects on American culture. More people spent more money than ever before on diets, health club memberships, and fitness equipment. In the 1970s, the country's 76 million baby boomers focused on getting their "heads together"; in the Eighties they followed Olivia Newton-John's advice in her pop hit "Let's Get Physical," the video of which showed flabby males magically transformed into hunks in a health club setting. Critics complained that Americans were becoming narcissistic; from trying to improve society they turned to improving themselves, both physically and financially. The "Me Generation" retreated into "purely personal preoccupations," according to Christopher Lasch. "Indeed Americans seem to wish to forget . . . the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency," said Lasch, and instead were living only for the present.
The fitness phenomenon took root in 1971, when Jackie Sorensen opened an aerobic dancing studio in the basement of a church in South Orange, New Jersey. "Jazzercise" was dismissed as a fad -- until Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda came along to prove that fitness was big business. Simmons was an obese child growing up in New Orleans who one day found a note on his car that read "Fat people die young." He shed 130 pounds and by 1982 had a hit television exercise program, while his Never-Say-Diet Book was No. 1 on the New York Time's bestseller list for the better part of a year. Jane Fonda's Workout Book was also a number-one bestseller, followed by a hot-selling high-impact exercise video. The companion two-record album of pop-rock tunes to sweat by made the Top 40. Infamous a decade earlier for hobnobbing with the Communists in Hanoi, Fonda became famous for looking so toned in her black and red-striped leotards at her posh Beverly Hills workout studio. She also became rich -- her books and videotapes had sold 4 million copies by 1986.
Fonda's metamorphosis was emblematic of a new ideal of feminine beauty. Being fit meant more than being healthy -- it had sex appeal. Top modeling agent Eileen Ford described the "80s Look" as "a firm body, healthy hair and skin, and a look of serene determination in the eyes. Today, health is beauty." And Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown claimed that good health made women more aware of their sexuality. "Women are becoming real sexual athletes," she said. "Jock chic" became fashionable, even among Sunset Strip prostitutes, who wore tank tops, jogging shorts and leg warmers to work the streets. Victoria Principal, star of TV's "Dallas" and author of The Body Principal seemed the definition of sexy, and as many men as women purchased the extremely popular Aerobicise video, in which provocative camera angles caught beautiful women performing a seductive aerobics program.
Understanding that healthy employees were more productive, corporations invested millions in in-house fitness facilities staffed by full-time physicians and physiologists. Kimberly-Clark Corporation's $2.5 million facility at Neenah, Wisconsin contained an Olympic-size swimming pool, 100-meter indoor track, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, whirlpool and sauna, with a staff of 25 who used treadmill tests and physical exams to customize a health program for each participating employee. In addition to opening nine physical fitness facilities, Xerox Corporation established its $3.5 million Fitness/Recreation Center, a private village on 2,300 acres in Leesburg, Virginia devoted to health management for its 56,000 employees. The Association of Fitness Directors in Business and Industry had two dozen members when it was formed in 1974; by the early Eighties it had nearly two thousand members. Studies showed that exercise programs produced a more positive attitude among participants, while sick-leave hours were reduced. In the long run, healthy employees meant lower insurance premiums. With these benefits in mind, companies sponsored programs that provided employees with incentives to get healthier. Employees of Intermatic, Inc. of Spring Grove, Illinois won a trip for two to Las Vegas if they quit smoking for a year. Scherer Brothers Lumber Company in Minneapolis offered "well pay" instead of sick pay -- an additional two hours of salary each month for employees who did not miss a day of work due to illness, as well as a two-week Florida vacation for a worker who had not been late or absent for ten years.
Americans spent billions of dollars a year on fitness-related products -- $5 billion for memberships to 5,000 health clubs, $8 billion for sportswear, $5 billion on vitamins and health foods and $6 billion on diet drinks. Over half of the adult population engaged in some kind of exercise, with 60 million swimmers, 44 million bicyclists, 23 million tennis players and 20 million joggers. A 1983 Reader's Digest/Gallup poll showed that 47 percent exercised daily, compared to only 24 percent twenty years earlier. Home exercise equipment became very popular, with sales increasing from 30 to 65 percent a year between 1980 and 1986 on such items as rowing machines, skiing machines, and stationary bikes -- not to mention Gravity Inversion Books, an invention by orthopedist Robert M. Martin which allowed people to hang upside down from bars. Home gyms were status symbols for some, and one study revealed that only 20 percent of those who bought fitness equipment for their homes were steady users. But those who did exercise at home often did so because health clubs were too crowded. Another complaint: that health clubs had become the singles bars of the Eighties, with more socializing than exercising going on. Chicago's $20 million East Bank Club, a five-story complex, offered a restaurant, card room, library and indoor golf in addition to the usual fitness facilities. The film Perfect, starring John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis, and based on articles written by Rolling Stone's Aaron Latham, explored the use of health clubs as places people went to find romance.
By the mid-Eighties ideas about fitness were being modified. As more people became aware that high-impact workouts could be counter-productive and sometimes hazardous to their health, moderation became the key. Jogging declined in popularity; the death of James Fixx -- author of the jogger's bible, The Complete Book of Running -- of a heart attack while jogging at age 52 shocked many of the sport's adherents. In his book, The Exercise Myth, cardiologist Henry Solomon gave dire warning of the risks involved in jogging. Walking became a popular substitute; over five million Americans took up aerobic walking in 1984, and seven million more did likewise the following year. Studies published in medical journals revealed that those engaged in moderate exercise gained as much health benefit as those who performed more strenuous workouts. Both walkers and joggers, for example, burned approximately 100 calories per mile and increased cardiovascular efficiency about equally. But joggers were prone to injuries like shin splints, while a number of marathon runners dropped dead of heart attacks. Women who exercised strenuously often experienced hormonal changes, with temporary infertility a possible consequence. Jane Fonda abandoned her "go for the burn" approach to exercise and promoted an easier regimen as the no pain, no gain credo lost currency when it was revealed that nearly half of those engaged in high-impact aerobics suffered such injuries as stress fractures.
Medical experts usually agreed that those who worked out on a regular basis were markedly healthier than those who did not. On the other hand, doctors were concerned about the growing American obsession with dieting. U.S. News & World Report claimed in 1984 that over half the population had been on a diet in the previous five years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration got involved, labeling starch blockers -- all the rage in 1983 -- an ineffective diet aid, and warned that appetite suppressants containing the stimulant PPA (phenylpropanolamine), used by 10 million Americans, could cause high blood pressure, insomnia and even strokes if used in excess. After seventeen deaths were linked to low-calorie, high-protein plans, the FDA required warning labels on many such diet products. And though Americans spent $10 billion a year on diet plans, ninety percent of all dieters regained the weight they lost.
Fitness became a positive addiction for many in the Eighties. Some worked out to relieve stress; exercise causes the body to release beta endorphins, which calms nerves. Self-esteem, peace of mind, a desire to maintain an active sex life, and a fear of growing old were other reasons for this preoccupation with health and physical appearance. "The race to make one's physical appearance stunning in order to be admired," said pollster Louis Harris, "is on in full force in America in the . . . 1980s." Perhaps John Travolta's character in the movie Perfect said it best: Baby boomers were leading a "physical Great Awakening" not unlike the spiritual Great Awakenings that had occurred long ago.
Just How Fit Were We in the Eighties?
In spite of the fitness craze, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 1986 that 80 percent of Americans did not exercise enough. In the Eighties, approximately one-third of the population was obese, a percentage unchanged from the 1970s -- with only one in four people within an acceptable weight range, according to health officials. And the exercise boom seemed to be a generational phenomenon; a 1985 federal study of 8,800 elementary and high school students found kids were fatter than ever before because they spent far more leisure time watching television and playing video games than in sports or other forms of exercise. And although many elderly Americans had taken up mall walking, the director of the National Health Institute in California found most people over 50 to be in "a dismal state of fitness."
Newsweek, 6 August 1984
Next, April 1981
Time, 2 November 1981, 30 August 1982, 7 October 1985, 18 November 1985, 10 February 1986, 26 January 1987
U.S. News & World Report, 3 May 1982, 8 October 1984, 11 August 1986
"The Great Fitness Health Kick"
Reader's Digest, July 1984
"Guide to Family Fitness"
Reader's Digest, January 1986
"The Culture of Narcissism"
The Eighties: A Reader, Gilbert T. Sewall, ed. (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1997)
Louis Harris (New York: Vintage Books, 1987)