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I can’t stop watching retro fitness videos. Here’s why they’re the best

Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons were trailblazers for a reason.
Tracey Anne Duncan
At some point in 2020, I went back to the videos that turned me on to fitness in the first place — and, as you can see from the photo on the right, I quickly got sucked in by the amazing retro vibes.Courtesy Tracey Anne Duncan

Our cultural obsession with fitness videos hit an all-time high during the peak of the pandemic. Throwback icons like Richard Simmons started making workouts again and people flocked to online fitness classes. As a yoga and fitness instructor for several decades, I wasn’t surprised. We were all really feeling the ache of stay-at-home and we needed to move our bodies. 

Thanks to the magic of live streaming, I went to Pilates classes in New York, yoga in Pune, India, and — obviously — I joined Peloton

At some point in 2020, I went back and watched all the videos that made me want to become a teacher in the first place — Patricia Walden’s iconic “Yoga for Beginners” and the Pilates series Ellen Barrett made for Crunch. I reignited my long-time teacher crush on Jane Fonda and developed a new one for Denise Austin. I even tried to “pony” with Richard Simmons. And I found myself obsessed — all over again — with retro fitness videos

When the vaccines came, I expected my interest to wane. I’m a gym rat, after all, with an absurd number of personalized fitness routines I’ve perfected throughout the years. Still, honestly nothing hits as hard as “8 Minute Abs,” circa 1995. You could say it’s all just nostalgia, but you’d only be partially right. The truth is that there’s something honest, transparent and joyful about retro fitness workouts that you can’t find anywhere else. 

They don’t assume that you already know how to do everything

I started doing yoga in the ’90s — literally in a retirement home. Yoga wasn’t cool or popular or hip and the people who were into yoga then were mostly aging hippies. So the videos that were made then — especially the series made for Gaiam by Patricia Walden and Rodney Yee — didn’t assume that you were familiar with any of the poses. 

Nowadays when I walk into a yoga class, many instructors just shout out the names of difficult poses and assume that you both know what they’re talking about and also how to do them. The instructors in this series actually explain what yoga is and why you might want to do it. They use very little Sanskrit and when they do use the Sanskrit names for the poses, they translate it in an accessible way. 

Back in the golden oldies — a.k.a. the year 2000 — no one assumed you knew that downward-facing dog was a thing a human would want to do. In "Yoga for Beginners," Patricia Walden breaks down every pose like you’ve never done it before. Even as an instructor, this doesn’t feel condescending. It feels considerate — like it’s OK if I don’t know everything. 

Richard Simmons Portrait Session
Richard Simmons, my guru!Harry Langdon / Getty Images

It’s OK to want to look hot 

I don’t know when it became taboo to admit that you want to look hot in classes designed to help you look hot, but it is. Of course it’s important that we’ve shifted our cultural conversations about fitness toward health, and I mostly love fitness for how it makes me feel. But part of how fitness makes me feel good is about having confidence in my body — and how I look in spandex.

While I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my quest to firm and tone for aesthetic reasons, you wouldn’t know it from many workout titles these days. Everything seems geared towards peace of mind and some vague notion of wellness. Again, that’s great! But I also want Buns of Steel™ and Rock Hard Abs™ and I don’t want to feel guilty about it — especially in a fitness class.

There’s something honest about how fitness instructors in retro videos talk about our motivations. No one is pretending that they are willing to do a thousand squats for world peace or whatever. Physical goals are written right into the title and there’s no pretense about it. “Do you want that tight tummy?” growls the absurdly ripped instructor of “8 Minute Abs.” Yes, thank you, I do. 

They’re fun!

The past few years have been, well, a bit unkind. I don’t need a stony-faced waif lecturing me about my mindset while I work my core. I want fitness to be a good time. Richard Simmons understood that 40 years ago and he still gets it today. He never tried to elevate fitness classes to some kind of high culture ideal and that is why he’s a household name. “Are you ready to have a good time?” he screams joyfully in “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” Yes, sir, I certainly am, and I am willing to look like an absolute moron fake-swimming in my living room to do it.

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda knew how to have a good time while working out, and that's invaluable.Harry Langdon / Getty Images

Levity is the reason that “Jane Fonda’s Workout” from 1982 is a cardiovascular masterpiece. I dare you to spend 30 minutes with her winking at you from under her sweatband and not have a good time. Sidenote: Jane Fonda was 45 when she made those videos. That’s right, our nation’s favorite sex symbol was fully middle-aged when she schooled us in leg-lifting. 

Retro fitness is still effective

Fitness fads come and go, but the human body hasn’t really changed much in the past millennia. What it takes to be healthy hasn’t changed, either. So while I am always curious about what’s new in fitness, what works remains a constant: Get your heart rate up and move. 

I compared the stats of my modern-day Zumba and indoor cycling routines with “Sweatin’ with the Oldies” and “Jane Fonda’s Workout” and guess what? They’re all equally effective. In fact, there was basically no discernible difference.

So, am I ever coming back to modern day workouts? Yes, but I’m not giving up my vintage VHS fitness gurus, either. I refuse to choose between Richard Simmons and Ally Love. One of the beautiful things the pandemic taught me was that I can have access to all the physical variety I want. I can have leg warmers and newfangled wearables, old school fitness discos and hyper-current playlists. 

I think that fitness should be fun and dynamic. Working out should make you love living in your body. Why not make it a time-traveling delight, as well?