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.