The Champagne Life on a DIY Budget Since 2007

Vintage VHS: Workouts in the Wayback Machine

vintage VHS workouts

Before I wised up and started running for free, I spent certain decades as a gym rat. I also purchased a workout tape or two and still have the headbands and leg warmers to prove it.

For the sake of journalistic duty, I dug up a few old friends on VHS to see how they’d aged. Trouble was, they hadn’t…but I sure have. Nevertheless, we’ve learned more about exercise since we first got our butts off the couch and onto the living room floor in the 1980s.

First off, it’s not called “aerobics” anymore. According to Irene Diamond, a former aerobics instructor and now exercise therapist in San Francisco, it’s now called “group exercise.”  Evidently, many exercises so tediously demonstrated in the ’80s are now considered ineffective or just plain harmful.

“Bouncing (while stretching), high-impact for 60 minutes, too-fast step music (more than 150 beats per minute), too loud music, full sit ups, straight-leg-bent-over toe-touching — all out,” says Irene. “The list goes on and on. But it’s good that exercise science is keeping up with researching what is best.”

The “Jane Fonda: Workout Challenge” (1987)
Jane ‘Feel the burn!’ Fonda, the Godmother of workouts, is one charming ass kicker. Utilizing every skill she’s acquired as a ballet dancer and Academy Award-winning actress, Jane isn’t human – she’s too damn perfect. Not only could I not keep up with her, I also failed at hating her.

Sometime during the truly mean “Workout Challenge,” I pondered the many facets of Jane Fonda’s fascinating life. Since I was having a leg cramp anyway, I paused to check her 1987 age on IMDB.

I was highly annoyed — no, ENRAGED — to discover that a 50-year-old Jane was easily kicking my 43-year-old ass in the next room. The nerve! I did the math over and over again while staring in awe at her tight and gorgeous body: “Okay, once again, she was born in 1937 and this video was made in 1987…DAMMIT! That still comes to 50!”

When I wasn’t vexed by Jane’s superhuman powers, I was distracted by her frozen smile workout class, all sporting severe ’80s fashion — animal print spandex, huge earrings and matching neon accessories: headband, belt and socks. And the hair? Massive. Hence, the personal space needed during those aerobic classes.

Richard Simmons’ “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” (1998)
God bless Richard Simmons. Silly and flamboyant though he may be, Richard represents the other end of the spectrum. Jane Fonda is a trim-all-her-life movie star and Richard was a kid named Milton who graduated from high school at 268 pounds. Jane Fonda uses shiny silver dumbbells for weight training; Richard uses filled glass soda bottles.

Jane’s ‘students’ are hard-bodies while Richard’s “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” videos are filled with appealingly regular humans. Most are overweight, wear big loud clothes and many lack rhythm. (One guy even had back hair. Huzzah for imperfections!) To their great credit, there’s not a fake smile in the bunch — they are genuinely having a ball. And yes there was a special poignancy to the class performance of “Big Girls Don’t Cry”…

Greg Smithey’s “Buns of Steel” series (1994)
I’ll take corny any day over the highly creepy approach used by Greg Smithey in his “Buns/Abs/Toes of Steel” series. An excerpt from “Buns” has Greg staring at the camera lasciviously with a bevy of gym bunnies behind him:

“Body beautiful. Beautiful legs, beautiful thighs, and a beautiful attitude towards life. All of these can be yours. All you have to do is reach out (pause, and then, a slow devilish grin) … reach out and grab it.” Yeesh.

Cher’s “CherFitness: A New Attitude” (1991)
At some point in the ’80s/’90s fitness craze, every celebrity was obligated to put out their own workout video and Cher was no exception. Her 1991 video did have something going for it — no fake banter script. Cher wisecracks and tells stories (“I met the Queen once!”) throughout the intense 91-minute workout to great comic effect. When the instructor, Kelly Roberts, comments, “You’re being awfully quiet,” Cher responds: “I’m trying to think of something funny. I want to be the Henny Youngman of step class.”

Step classes — I’d forgotten all about them. Irene says it’s just as well since step classes are rare nowadays, for several reasons. “Clubs can’t fit very many steps into a studio, so that limits the number of participants,” she says. “Also, the injury rate was relatively high compared to other forms of group classes. And many students weren’t coordinated enough to keep up, so the frustration factor was high.” You can say that again.

My favorite re-discovery was the end of any “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” video. With the band in full swing, as always, the class would make two lines facing each other and each blessedly imperfect participant would come dancing down the center one at time towards the camera. Then, their name would appear above how many pounds they’d lost. You’d see everything from a very large smiling woman: “Sharon Cowan — Just Beginning” to a regular guy in total glee: “Michael Hebranko — Lost 704 lbs.” (You read that right. SEVEN HUNDRED and four pounds.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who or what gets you moving, as long as it happens. And these free or low-cost vintage VHS workout tapes are a great place to start.

Story: Copyright 2009, Shoestring, LLC.

  • Debbie Kehn

    I am looking for an exercise video that I used to do right after my first child was born in 1984 but it has finally quit working. The name of it is ‘Super Stomach’ from the Esquire Great Body Series. It was created by the Polaris Media Group and distributed by the Best Film & Video of Great Neck, NY 11201. Does anyone know where I can find a copy of this since it is the one exercise video that motivates me!

  • Chris Kennedy

    Hello Debbie,

    Try eBay, Amazon, or even They’ve always got an abundance of classic exercise videos.

    Happy exercising! Blessings to you and take care.

    Yours truly,
    Chris Kennedy
    A male fitness fanatic

  • YesterYearsGoodies

    Check out my site: for a large selection of new and gently used, tested VHS exercise videos – Fonda, Cher, FIRM, Buns of Steel, Richard Simmons, and lots more – all in one place, and offered with multiple item discounts, combined shipping savings, and a guarantee to play.

  • Jenny F.

    Those vintage girls often had some ugly cheetah print leggings – so ugly :D