Like clothing, hairstyles, and music, exercise is constantly evolving. Over the years, fitness trends have gone from basic body resistance to expensive gadgets and back again, often aiming to appeal to the most people possible by taking the “work” out of workout.
Many fitness movements have faded from public favor, as trends so often do, becoming little more than a blip in the exercise history books (looking at you, vibrating belts). But other developments, like the subtle strength training of calisthenics, have continued to lay the foundation for modern workouts for many years. From hula hoops to spinning and the cult of CrossFit, here are some of the most popular fitness trends from the 1950s until today.
Hoops have been used for different purposes in different cultures for centuries. Ancient Egyptian children molded grape vines into rings they would swivel around their waists, while the Greeks used similar hoops for exercise. The modern plastic hula hoop, inspired by Australian wooden hoops, was popularized in the U.S. in 1958 by the Wham-O toy company. Almost immediately upon the toy’s introduction, it became a phenomenon, selling 25 million units in its first four months. It was the must-have toy for kids, and adults quickly adapted the toy into a fitness tool after realizing the cheap and accessible item enabled a great full-body workout.
The ’50s trend faded fast, both for kids and grownups. While hula hoops have remained well-known toys over the years, they have mostly come and gone as must-have fitness equipment. However, recently the video-sharing social network TikTok has repopularized the fitness activity, now updated with digital enhancements for the wearable tech age.
Developed by Germans in the 19th century, calisthenics was a favorite way to get and stay fit in midcentury America. These rhythmic exercises use the body’s own weight as resistance, in the form of push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks and more, and were popular with everyone from military men (the Royal Canadian Air Force’s famous 1950s regimen is credited for the calisthenics surge) to housewives (fans of the Amazon TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will recognize it as the staple housewife fitness fad).
Different forms of calisthenics are still popular today, and many current workout trends incorporate aspects of the approach, including pilates and the high intensity interval training (HIIT) found in popular fitness bootcamps.
Vibrating Belt Machines
The vibrating belt machine remains one of the most memorable fitness trends of the 20th century — but not because it worked. The early exercise machines were first developed in the 1850s by a Swedish physician who used them as a massage tool in an overall health and rehabilitation system. But by the time they hit American households, they were heralded as a quick and easy way to lose weight while relaxing or watching TV. Featuring a wide vibrating strap that was looped around the waist, butt, or thighs, it was believed the machines would break down body fat and make it easy to flush out of the system.
Of course, that’s not how fat burning works, and eventually most consumers realized the machines didn’t work, either. The midcentury fitness fad was soon being widely debunked by scientists, and the machines fell out of favor by the 1980s (although they haven’t entirely disappeared).
As kitschy as it now seems, this fun and high-energy cardio workout set the stage for decades of fitness dancing to come. Started in 1969 by a Chicago dance instructor named Judi Sheppard Missett, Jazzercise — a mash-up of dancing, strength training, and kickboxing, all set to upbeat popular music — slowly expanded from a boutique fitness class to a home-video phenomenon practiced (and taught) primarily by women.
Jazzercise isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be, but is still offered in modern fitness studios. Its groundbreaking approach to fitness kick-started two decades of cardio-dance trends, including the VHS aerobics boom of the 1980s and even the Zumba sensation of the aughts.
The invention of aerobics is credited to military doctor Kenneth Cooper in the 1960s, but its pop culture dominance is more frequently associated with its two most famous instructors: actress Jane Fonda and fitness guru Richard Simmons. In the 1980s, these two figures led the aerobics fitness fad with their high-octane and accessible VHS workout collections. The trend was not dissimilar to Jazzercise, but with less dancing and more leg-lifting, arm-pumping intensity.
Aerobics became a far-reaching and long-lasting fitness trend, branching out to include, of course, dance aerobics, water aerobics, step aerobics, and more.
The Infomercial Gadgets
If you watched any television through the ’80s and ’90s, you’re no doubt familiar with the flood of home gym equipment that dominated commercials and infomercials. There was the Bowflex, Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster, NordicTrack, and the too-good-to-be-true appeal of the simple Ab Roller, to name a few.
Catering to busy lifestyles and cashing in on at-home fitness fads, these gadgets worked as well as any gym equipment if used properly and consistently. But like most trends, they didn’t offer a quick fix, and having equipment at home slowly fell out of favor over time. Despite the fact that machines like the cross-country-skiing emulating NordicTrack were approaching $500 million in annual sales by 1993, by the end of the ’90s, the fad had faded.
Cashing in on the home fitness craze of the previous decade, karate champion and actor Billy Blanks developed the Tae Bo workout in the 1980s, going on to reach millions with his VHS tapes in the late ’90s.
A portmanteau of “tae” (as in taekwondo) and “bo” (as in boxing), Tae Bo was a high-intensity boot-camp workout that also included dancing and modern hip-hop music. The cardio craze sold more than 500 million videos in its run, and catapulted Blanks to pop culture ubiquity. While Blanks still teaches the class to this day, home fitness practitioners have largely moved on from this quintessential ’90s workout.
Zumba danced its way into mainstream fitness in the early 2000s and skyrocketed to massive success by putting fun before fitness. It started, the too-good-to-be-true story goes, as an accident. When Colombian dancer and choreographer Alberto Perez forgot to bring his regular music to the aerobics class he was teaching, he subbed in the salsa and merengue cassettes he had in his backpack. The soundtrack stuck, and his classes gained momentum in Colombia through the ‘90s.
When Perez moved to the U.S. in the early 2000s, his classes remained popular, if localized. Word-of-mouth spread about the Latin dance-inspired workouts, and Perez was approached about filming an infomercial for his beloved workout. It took off rapidly, and today, the dance craze has instructors in more than 125 countries and is taught at more than 200,000 locations around the world.
CrossFit was founded in Santa Cruz, California, around 2000, and by the 2010s had become a cult-like fitness movement throughout North America. The grueling strength and conditioning program uses a mixture of aerobics, weightlifting, and calisthenics. While it is beloved by its believers, it has also been criticized for the potential danger it poses to inexperienced exercisers.
The world of CrossFit includes its own language. If you’ve ever walked by a CrossFit gym and wondered why “WOD: Cindy” is written on its chalkboard out front, it means that the “workout of the day” will be the “Cindy” (many of the workouts have women’s names). That’s five pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats for “AMRAP” — that one is code for “as many rounds as possible.”
Stationary bikes have been a staple of boutique fitness studios and home exercise routines for decades. But the spin-class craze hit a fever pitch in 2006 when the first SoulCycle studio — complete with candlelit rooms, blaring music, and a shouting inspirational instructor — opened in New York City.
Spinning has maintained its popularity since the SoulCycle craze kicked its visibility into overdrive. In 2013, the Peloton entered the market; its innovative livestreaming and social interactivity components quickly turned it into a cult-like phenomenon, making the fitness tech startup into a $4 billion dollar business in just a few years.
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training and is defined by short bursts of high-energy exercise followed by a short period of rest or cool-down exercises. The primarily bodyweight-based program has been a popular element of many exercise trends over the years, but even on its own it remains one of the most enduring trends in both gym, studio, and at-home fitness — most likely because it promises the best workout in the shortest amount of time, something overworked and overtired people are always looking to maximize.
Most recently, HIIT workouts have proven to be one of the best options for those looking to maintain fitness during prolonged periods at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many short workouts are available online for free, and no extra weights or equipment is needed, making them not only affordable, but very achievable. (Peloton’s at-home setup also took the brand to new heights during the year of lockdowns.)