A Return To The 1980s Jane Fonda Retro Workout

by Nicole Johnson
Originally Published: 
jane fonda exercise video
Nicole Johnson

While cleaning out my basement recently, I discovered several of my mother’s 1980s Jane Fonda exercise videos. In a flurry of nostalgia, I dug out my ancient VCR and attempted to hook it up to my television. The clunky black box still worked, but once I put the tape in, the picture only rolled up and down like a blurry The Price Is Right wheel. I tried to adjust the tracking, moving the button from left to right, and for a few minutes even attempted to work out along with staticky Jane, but it just wasn’t working.

I finally gave up on the VCR and turned to some modern-day technology: my laptop. YouTube offered several videos, and after doing a bit of research, I discovered that Jane Fonda videos have been making a bit of a comeback and were even re-released on DVD in early 2015. Apparently, I’m not the only Gen-Xer eager to relive the 1980s fitness craze, or maybe it’s just that we took a look at Jane, now 79, and realized that she obviously did something right, because she still looks fabulous.

Determined to reminisce with Jane, I put on my leotard with matching leg warmers and headband and fired up the video. While feeling the burn with my favorite exercise idol, I realized there were several things I missed back when I first exercised alongside my mother to Jane all those years ago:

1. Jane Didn’t Do Yoga Pants and Tank Tops

Jane wore high-cut, thigh-hugging French leotards. Think Solid Gold dancers, but without the gold. And whether striped, bright, long-sleeved or short, the leotards almost always matched her leg warmers, which matched her headband, which often coordinated with her shoes. In one lower body workout, Jane matched her neon green headband to the fabric in her shirt. I wonder if her videos inspired the term “matchy-matchy.”

2. There Was an Inordinate Amount of Bouncing, Bobbing and Stretching

Jane would narrate her moves as she did them. “Stretch, stretch, reach,” was followed by, “Pull, pull, touch,” and her fellow aerobicizing pals followed her every command. I felt sure they would have known what to do, whether Jane led them or not. Together they operated like a finely tuned exercise machine. Not only did Jane command, she counted—usually to eight. Sometimes she skipped a number, allowing us to silently count in our heads. But we liked it better when Jane counted.

3. Jane Always Looked Flawless

Her makeup stayed put through stretching, aerobics, sweating and cool down. Her backup team remained gorgeous as well, their hair feathered or permed into 1980s workout perfection. Unlike today’s workouts, there were no different body types. Everyone was thin, toned and tanned. Body diversity had no place in ’80s fitness.

4. Everything Seemed a Bit, Well…Staged

From the ’80s pop synthesizer music to the “workout studio,” Jane didn’t exercise in an industrial gym like modern-day workout hero Tony Horton does in P90X or a grimy school gymnasium like exercise icon Shaun T of Insanity fame. No, Jane exercised in a room with a soothing backdrop of walls painted in shades of mauves and taupes. These walls featured sconces and faux art prints of what I can only assume were meant to depict the city of Los Angeles. Jane made exercising look pretty.

5. Jane Sometimes Turned the Class Over to Another Instructor

In one video, Jane greets her in-studio class and her viewers only to, moments later say, “Okay, everyone, I leave you in good hands. I’ll be back to check on you later.” Was Jane being lazy? Was she tired? Did she simply realize that her headband didn’t match her leotard? I never found out the answer. But I was sad to see her go, and had I paid to see the video, as I’m sure many women in the 1980s did, I would have felt a little shorted.

6. Jane Was No One-Trick Pony

She did aerobics, but also did other routines, like yoga, meditation and Latin dance—nothing was off limits for the fitness guru. She also incorporated equipment. Two- to three-pound weights and matching bands often accompanied her workouts. But no matter what type of workout or equipment used, in true Jane fashion, it was always perfectly choreographed.

7. Jane’s Routines Were Not as Physically Demanding as Those of Today

I had to question why Jane and her crew always seemed to sweat so much. I wondered if, like the pristine studio and the well-manicured workout crew, that was another clever trick for the audience. Had Jane really worked up a sweat at all?

After finishing one workout and viewing several others, I decided that, while fun to watch, the Jane Fonda workout series is probably best left in the ’80s. I’ll stick to my modern and thoroughly sweat-inducing routines. But…I might still rock the hot pink leotard.

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