From dance and step aerobics to hula hooping, including jazzercise and roller skating, the ’80s and ’90s fitness phenomenons are enjoying a big and bright resurgence amongst midlife women.
Synonymous with leg warmers and high-cut leotards, retro workout classes still have a huge appeal in 2023 and a large part of this revival comes from the high-intensity, pump-up tunes that accompany these exercises (and, of course, a good old dose of nostalgia).
A lot of the appeal seems to be rooted in looking back to a more optimistic era and a more carefree type of fitness than is available to us today.
“With aerobics—and the specific, dynamic choreography it requires—you have to be very tuned into what you’re doing in the present moment. This intense focus, which is different from the zone-out stage you can reach during a more repetitive aerobic activity like running, can help pull you out of your negative thoughts or worries“, Christa DiPaolo, a certified personal trainer based in Miami and creator of Boxing and Bubbles at-home workouts.
The focus that aerobic exercises require can also help challenge and improve your coordination. What’s more, they bring you a lot of fun and a sense of overall well-being. That’s probably the reason for the huge success of modern gym clubs offering these classes.
“The crazy hair, the colours, the leotards, the legwarmers, it’s just hysterical,” says choreographer Jennifer Hamilton who put together the dance moves for ‘Physical’, the black comedy starring Rose Byrne on Apple TV. “Modern fitness enthusiasts have been revisiting old workout videos for a while—when Jane Fonda re-released her original workouts on DVD in 2015 a huge outpouring of support came from celebrities and life-long fans alike. And now you can follow along with the 83-year-old Fonda on TikTok“.
Why retro workout classes are so motivating
A meta-analysis published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise reviewed 158 studies and concluded that bouts of aerobic exercise can increase people’s self-reported mental states for at least 30 minutes after their sessions.
According to Claire Burlison, founder of Clubbercise: “There’s a lot of nostalgia-chasing in the modern day, whether it’s repeats of old movies and TV shows or 90s styles making a comeback. The music, the glowsticks, the dancing. It’s not about getting everything perfect – people can take it to their own level, keep it simple and enjoy the music without worrying about getting the moves spot on or a stern trainer acting like a drill sergeant”.
On the same page Hebe Halloun, founder of Mum-Dance, the low impact, high sweat, dance fitness workout with effective routines to school disco smash hits from the late 70s to early 90s, says: “After I had my kids I wanted to go to a fun and effective dance fitness class. Inspired by Fame, Flashdance, Mr Motivator and Mad Lizzie. I started the first class with 4 women. Now we have classes all over the UK and Gibraltar“.
Research has also shown that when we move together, whether in a yoga class or a road race, neurochemicals create a feeling of collective joy that helps bond us to strangers and increase pain tolerance.
“I think we’re moving away from the popular notion that fitness should be about pushing ourselves to our limits and toward it feeling genuinely good“, says Danielle Friedman, author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World“.
Today, exercise is a multibillion-dollar fitness industry, and women account for more than half of all gym memberships and dominate yoga, pilates, and barre studios. But it hasn’t always been this way. For much of the 20th century, sweating was considered unladylike and women were discouraged from physical exercise.
“Women were not allowed to run marathons in case they turned into men or lesbians, and it was feared that physical exertion could damage a woman’s reproductive organs or cause her uterus to fall out. Then into the ‘70s and ‘80s came aerobic dancing and jazzercise, which by 1982 was the United States’ second fastest growing franchise, and women began to move en masse, setting in motion an exercise revolution“, Friedman says.
In today’s world, retro fitness classes just prove that girls still wanna have fun.
“The idea of retro is not so much turning the clock back as getting back to a basic callisthenic-type workout and away from technology,” Cedric Bryant, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, said. “You can do very effective training with inexpensive basic tools.”
How about trying retro workout classes at home? A circuit workout is a perfect way to combine some of the decade’s signature workout styles into one routine. Switching up your movements frequently also keeps you from getting bored and ensures a full-body burn. Don’t forget to wear a sexy and colourful leotard to embrace the 80s in full mode!