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Beyond the Bee Gees; From dance aerobics to Pilates, a look at how the fitness scene has evolved

The year was 1984, a time of Boy George, big hair and parachute pants. It was also the year Lindy Langhame of Montreal taught her first aerobics class.

Fast forward to 2007, and Langhame, 58, is retiring after more than two decades of grapevines and knee lifts. She has seen the fitness scene evolve from dance exercise classes in church basements to equipment-laden workouts in high-tech gyms. To remind us just how far fitness has progressed, here’s a trip down memory lane to share the good, the bad and the ugly of the past two decades.

The early years: Group exercise classes took a new twist in the late 1970s with the introduction of dance aerobics. The format was simple: A class full of energetic participants followed the lead of an equally energetic instructor, who combined dance and athletic moves to create a whole new way to get in shape.

The trend hit its stride in 1982 after Jane Fonda’s workout videos showed us how it was done. Gyms opened all over the country to accommodate the large number of people eager to sweat to the latest dance beat. Langhame remembers bare feet being the norm in the early years but, when aerobics started looking less like dance and more like exercise, shoes became part of the uniform. In fact, aerobics sparked a whole new line of footwear designed specifically for group exercise classes.

The crowd was young (20s and early 30s) and primarily female, Langhame recalls. Music was the focal point of the workout and instructors spent hours compiling just the right soundtrack to showcase their choreography. The process was lengthy (instructors bought records of hit songs and recorded them on to a cassette tape).

In its infancy, aerobic dance classes needed little more then good music and fun choreography. Very little, if any, equipment was used until the debut of step aerobics in the late 1980s.

Today, Langhame says aerobics have become safer and more enjoyable.
High-impact aerobics have softened over the years into a less frenetic and bone-jarring form of exercise. But they have also become less popular, with more people choosing yoga and Pilates over exercising to the beat of the music.

According to Langhame, today’s group exercise classes still attract mostly women but they are an older crowd (30 and up). The selection of classes reflects the aging gym population, with more choices that blend both mind and body such as Pilates and yoga. And for those still wanting a high-intensity workout, core training, boot camp and spin are just some on a long list of options fitness fanatics can chose from.

How does the younger crowd get in shape? Women in their 20s prefer working out solo on cardio machines or in the weight room while listening to iPods.

Instructors who teach group exercise classes no longer need to create their own soundtracks. Instead, they buy pre-packaged fitness music compilations on CD or compile their own playlists on their MP3 players. Langhame admits music is easier to come by nowadays but she’s not crazy about its repetitive beat. She also says today’s music doesn’t offer the same energy and motivation as it did in the days of the Pointer Sisters and the Bee Gees.

As for equipment, gone are the days when a pair of dumbbells was enough to keep everyone happy. Today’s participants rarely work out without a stash of equipment close by, including exercise balls, weighted balls, steps, resistance tubing and light weights.

The best and worst fads: There has been no shortage of fitness fads over the years, some of which have stuck and some of which lasted about as long as a summer tan. What was the worst fitness fad of the last two decades?

"Tae Bo," Langhame says without hesitation. The cardio-boxing exercise was made popular by Billy Blanks in the late 1990s. Langhame said she questions the safety of trying to teach complex, high-energy kicking and punching moves in a group setting. She also noted the increase in shoulder, elbow, hip and knee injuries that accompanied Tae Bo’s popularity.

And the best fad?

"The original aerobics," Langhame says.

Hard to argue. In its heyday, aerobics spawned not only a boom in gym memberships, but in fashion (who can forget neon Lycra body suits and leg warmers?), workout videos and television shows (remember the 20-Minute Workout?). And while one can say that yoga has had a similar effect in the past decade, aerobic exercise created gym culture as we now know it.

But its heyday is over. According to the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, aerobics are now offered in fewer than half the gyms in the U.S. And while most of us are ready to say goodbye to Richard Simmons and his short shorts, veteran instructors like Langhame and the history they represent will be missed.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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