Jack LaLanne, Jane Fonda, Jillian Michaels: Who's the best fitness guru?

The business, culture, and science of working out.
Jan. 19 2011 4:01 AM

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.

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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.

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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.)

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