It’s a colourful history: from the gentle stretches of the 1910s and 1920s, designed to reduce ‘unfeminine’ perspiration, to the hula hoop and twister fads of the mid-20th century and today’s high-energy Zumba workouts.
It begins with the 1910s, an era when women took to early exercise bikes and weights with gusto: ankle-length attire or not! Their main form of exercise was comprised of gentle stretches that were said to improve the hips and, believe it or not, ease constipation!
1920s fitness included more of the same stretches, with a more energetic twist undoubtedly inspired by the popular dance routine, the Charleston. Glamour prevailed even during these workouts, with fitness clothes incorporating silk nightgowns and full makeup instead of sports bras!
In the 1930s, fitness made a concerted leap forward. Enter the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, an organisation created by Mary Bagot Stack, aiming to bring fitness to the masses. ‘Movement is life’ was her motto, and her fitness exercises were revolutionary, incorporating, for the first time, things like star jumps in large group classes.
Next, the 1940s marked another departure for women’s fitness. The Women’s League of Health and Beauty maintained a large membership, but with the onset of war, many women began exercising in their own homes. Genteel, sweat-minimising exercises were the order of the day, including an early form of sit-up.
1950s fitness is the epitome of retro fitness, with the hula hoop taking centre stage. Both children and adults were swept up in the craze, and with a little clever marketing, people saw the hula hoop as a fully-fledged exercise tool! Who knew you could have so much fun while burning calories?
Hula hoop fitness was later cast aside when the 1960s introduced the world to the Trim Twist. Made from a square of pressed board mounted on top of a metal turning mechanism, this portable piece of kit became a hit with housewives and office workers alike. Simply stand on top and get twisting to firm the stomach, bottom, arms and legs.
1970s fitness took a jauntier turn when former Broadway star, Judi Sheppard Missett, introduced her new phenomenon… Jazzercise! This combination of aerobic exercise and jazz dancing was designed to slim and tone, and proved so much fun that it’s still practised in 32 countries!
When we reach the 1980s, it’s all about aerobics. Day-glo leotards and big hair dominated the fitness industry, with physical fitness becoming something of a status symbol. High-energy routines and high kicks provided an intense cardiovascular workout, and Jane Fonda dominated television screens.
1990s fitness was less Jane Fonda and more Billy Blanks, an American taekwondo instructor who brought Tae Bo to the nation. His exercise trend combined taekwondo and boxing to create movements designed to promote fitness and work every area of the body.
The 2000s, however, were the decade in which fitness through dance returned. ‘Street dance’ passed through school yards and local neighbourhoods into dance studios and gyms, becoming the fitness trend of choice. ‘Locking’ and ‘popping’ the body, bobbing and weaving, and grabbing or punching through the air are the hallmarks of almost every routine.
Today, in the 2010s, fitness is even more fast-paced: say hello to Zumba! Incorporating elements of hip-hop, soca, salsa, samba, merengue and mambo, it feels more like a trip to a nightclub with friends than an effort to get fit! From the old to the young, everybody is welcome at classes. Health and fitness has never been more accessible!
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