A retro-1980s flavor is hot in today's health clubs, and not just in the music. Aerobics instructors are trending away from overly choreographed dance-based aerobics that were popular in the 1990s, and getting back to basic calisthenics, such as jumping jacks, jump ropes and boot camp classes. Headbands are even making a comeback in some aerobics studios.
It's funny, because people who remember the aerobics classes of the early '80s shudder at the thought of going back.
"When I think back, I just can't believe I used to do that stuff," said 50-year-old Kate Hudson, co-owner of the Fitness Factory in Newburyport.
For starters, women wore leotards with belts. Jane Fonda's 1982 "Workout" video was a phenomenon even outside the fitness world. Aerobics gear inspired fashion, from cut-off gray sweatshirts to Reebok aerobics high-tops.
"The sweat bands around the head, the leg warmers, uh huh," Hudson recalled.
To actually be doing aerobics in the '80s, and not just wearing the clothes, had a certain cachet, said Peabody resident Kiki Hanson, group exercise director at Beverly Athletic Club.
"It's funny because I don't know where that came from or how it got to be," she said. "The clothes were as important as the workout."
Hanson worked out in leotard and tights, and later - yes, she's willing to admit - in leggings under a thong.
"I forgot about (that)," she said, laughing. "Oh my God."
The earliest aerobics classes were brutal, said Mary Lynch of Cedardale, who was certified to teach aerobics in 1987.
The instructor would make up the routine as she went. There was no choreography, just endless repetitions of jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, leg lifts and running and jumping in place.
"You found music that you liked, you cranked it up and you just went for it," she said.
It was all high-impact, Lynch said, because at the time, there wasn't much information or training about how to raise heart rates without beating on the body.
Hudson liked to crank Queen's music at her Newburyport classes and get the group running, jumping and working as hard as they could.
The sneakers of that era offered little support, she said. The floors were not designed for aerobics. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of injuries. Shin splints, muscle strains, foot and calf muscle injuries and even stress fractures were common, Hudson said. Instructors simply didn't know any better.
"There were really no standards," Hudson said. "There were no such things as certifications."
Things started to change around 1988, as professional organizations and fitness-equipment makers began training and certifying instructors.
"That was the best thing that ever came down the pike, certification and higher standards," Hudson said. "That really helped alleviate a lot of the injuries. ... That was the plus that has come out of that whole era."
Around the time Hanson was wearing a thong and working out to "Pump Up the Jam" at health clubs on the North Shore, group exercise was coming into its own.
Props started showing up in aerobics studios, starting with the Reebok step in 1989. Now group exercise studios are packed with equipment: steps, stability balls, free weights, yoga mats, resistance bands, BOSU balance trainers (half a stability ball on a platform), and indoor cycles.
"That's the biggest dilemma with group exercise right now," Lynch said. "Where do you put all the stuff?"
As strength-training classes, pilates and yoga entered the workout studio, instructors switched the name from aerobics to group exercise or group conditioning.
Instructors learned to teach low-impact aerobics, and also to consider safety, effectiveness and specific heart rate and muscle training goals into a workout. They learned to choose music based on beats per minute and choreograph in 32-count blocks.
"For a while, we got so highly choreographed that people said, 'I can't do it,'" Lynch said.
The trend now may be basic calisthenics, Medlock said, but it's different from the calisthenics of the '80s.
"The old-school aerobics has come back, but it's more sports-inspired," she said. "It's more functional, more core, more bursts of energy. It's done much smarter."
For example, she does jumping jacks in her classes, but with a focus on form: knees turned out and using the leg muscles to do the work rather than the momentum of a bounce.
At some point in the late 1990s, after a brief parachute pants fad at some gyms, exercise fashion settled down, too.
Women still spend a lot of money on their aerobics and yoga outfits, Hanson said, but the styles are more functional.
At Cedardale, as at many gyms, the fashion is to wear black pants, black leggings, black capris, black shorts, or just about anything black on the bottom with tank tops or T-shirts on top. Clothes are a little looser for yoga, a little tighter for working with a stability ball.
"When we give a tour, one of the first things we tell members is, 'Don't go out and spend money on the clothing,'" Hudson said.
That certainly wasn't the case in the Jane Fonda days.
"(Aerobics) was fresh, new," Hudson said. "You weren't just out pounding the pavement, you were having fun doing it. It was how it all started and I'm glad it did because it has come a long way."
1968 - The term "aerobics" enters the popular lexicon after Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper writes a book called "Aerobics, encouraging people to exercise regularly to prevent disease."
1981 - Olivia Newton-John releases the album "Physical," and the title track spends 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. In the accompanying video, she tries to get the attention of beefy men in a gym by working out in front of them in her tight leotard.
1982 - Jane Fonda's first aerobics video "Workout" inspires millions of women to buy leotards with belts, leg warmers and matching sweat bands. Fonda got interested in aerobics after hurting her foot while filming a movie. Why leg warmers? Fonda's background was in ballet.
1982 - Reebok introduces its Freestyle sneaker, one of the first aerobics shoes for women. It came in eight colors, including red, pink and green.
1983 - Jazzercise, a pop music dance-fitness class, becomes a franchise for instructors around the nation. Jazzercise studios open in all 50 states.
1988 - Richard Simmons releases "Sweatin' to the Oldies." In his characteristic red striped shorts, Simmons encourages men and women of all sizes to have fun with aerobics.
1989 - Reebok introduces the step, a device invented by Gin Miller. Miller was an aerobics instructor and body builder who hurt her knee. When her doctor told her to step on a milk crate for rehabilitation, she used her porch step instead and realized what a great workout it was; 1989 was also the year Reebok released its "pump" sneaker.
1989 - Marathon cyclist Jonathan Goldberg, a.k.a. Johnny G., builds a stationary bike to train for a 3,100-mile ride and offers classes in his garage. It is the birth of spinning, later dubbed "group cycling" when other companies create similar programs in the 1990s.
1992 - Cardio-kickboxing is created using actual martial arts moves but in a group exercise format.
1993 - Slide aerobics is introduced and quickly forgotten. Exercisers wore booties over their sneakers and glided on a slippery board with bumpers on either side.
1995 - Mike and Stephanie Morris spread the word about Resist-A-Ball, their version of the toy-like stability ball that had been used for physical therapy since the 1960s. Health clubs start using stability balls in group exercise classes.
1995 - The first Curves franchise opens, promising women fitness in a half-hour.
1999 - Billy Blanks releases the "Tae Bo Workout," a video based on his combined martial arts and boxing technique. His first Tae Bo classes were held in his Los Angeles garage in 1989.
2002 - National magazines spread the word about BOSU, a half stability ball attached to a platform. Local health clubs begin incorporating BOSU into group exercise classes.
2006 - Fitness instructors move toward shorter classes and classes that combine things like step aerobics or spinning with yoga or BOSU or strength training.