Health and fitness as we know it really began in the UK as long ago as the late 1920s. Prunella Stack founded the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, bringing the benefits of exercise to a generation of women traumatised by the First World War and the loss of fiancés, husbands and brothers. Although the present-day names were not used, the exercise routines of the league would be familiar to anyone taking classes in pilates, aerobics or yoga today, Stack even pioneered exercise wear with the league ‘uniform’ of white blouse and black shorts, considered very daring at a time when hemlines were still only gradually creeping upwards.
The Second World War took away a lot of the need for exercise, with far greater concerns for the population. Rationing meant no chance of being overweight – in fact the people of the UK were often healthier than now with plenty of walking needed to get to and from the shops, very few aids to housework and certainly no need to burn off excess calories.
As rationing gradually faded away and the country entered the ‘never had it so good’ era, times of plenty started to show on the waistline of the nation. Jumping jacks and bench presses started to enter the fitness vocabulary, but there was still a realistic attitude to body shape and an active lifestyle for most. When model Twiggy shot to fame in the late 1960s, the waif-like look suddenly became very fashionable among the newly invented ‘teenagers’. Along with her predecessor Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy popularised a whole new beauty ideal. Although she is naturally thin (she still looks remarkably similar today in her early sixties) she has been somewhat unfairly blamed for the unrealistic body shape ‘ideals’ that plague the modelling industry to this day and are still a very bad influence on impressionable youngsters.
Fortunately another trend was around the corner, with strength and a healthy body being made the new ideals. Aerobics was the real start of fitness as fashion, and the first craze to take advantage of modern media with accompanying music. Actress Jane Fonda popularised aerobics with a set of best-selling videos (remember them?) and cries of ‘feel the burn’ and ‘no pain, no gain’. Participants perfected their grapevine, lunged in unison and bounced through their jumping jacks. Fonda’s bank balance was also assisted by the first craze for fitness wear – stand up, all those who were guilty of wearing sweat bands, shiny tights, painfully high-cut leotards and the famous legwarmers! The 1980s cemented its reputation as ‘the decade that style forgot’ with the effects of films such as ‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’ – but let’s face it, it was all rather fun at the time.
Aerobics became tougher and tougher, and people soon realised that it wasn’t just for girls as the workouts let everyone build up a healthy sweat. Fitness classes turned into competition with competitive aerobics, now known as sport aerobics and still with a large following both for competitors and spectators.
All that jumping and running on the spot produced an epidemic of impact injuries such as shin splints, heel pain and so on. Step Aerobics appeared in the late 1990s, targeted at those who found ‘standard’ aerobics to be too high impact and as a result were acquiring injuries. The concept of ‘step’ was invented by an injured aerobics instructor, and with one foot always on the ground, this form of exercise can still get the heartrate up and the lungs working without the heavier loads from jumping around. The height of the step can be varied for different levels of workout, and the required footwork can also be made more complicated. Many people will remember embarrassing falls off the step when they mis-timed their foot tap or leg swing!
Many other exercise classes have arrived since these first big crazes. The gentler workout of Pilates was revived as a counterpoint to all the jumping around. The concept was developed early in the twentieth century, and refined to produce strengthening and posture-improving exercise. Another attraction of Pilates is that it is not aerobic – i.e no sweat – and so fits neatly into a busy lunch hour without the need for a shower afterwards. This means that it does of course need to be combined with cardiovascular exercise for real benefits.
Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, fitness classes are coming full circle with the return of ‘feel the burn’. Boot camps are held both indoors and outdoors, with instructors providing encouragement to those who feel that they need a bit of a push to improve their fitness. Circuit training and higher-impact exercise is coming back into fashion, and ‘muscle gyms’ dedicated to serious bodybuilding are popular again.
Look on the exercise programme for any large leisure centre and you will find a bewildering choice of classes. Many now have international inspiration with classes such as Brazilian dance, Bhangra Aerobics and dozens of variants of yoga. When it comes to choices in fitness, we can truly say that now is the time when ‘we’ve never had it so good’.