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Jane Fonda’s Workout

Text by Laura McLaws Helms

Something that unites us all at Lady is our love of movement—Susan is a former ballet dancer and Laura a passionate fitness fiend. Continuing our series about fitness videos of the past, Laura delves into the history behind the most famous exercise VHS and the woman behind it: Jane Fonda’s Workout.

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Soon after turning forty-one, Jane Fonda did the unthinkable. The Hollywood scion, former model, actress, Academy Award winner, activist, wife and mother opened her own workout studio in Los Angeles—something that the press considered an unimaginable idea in 1979. Jane Fonda’s Workout launched in September with an “interdisciplinary” workout—“an hour and a half of aerobics, calisthenics, dance (ballet, jazz, or disco), with an emphasis on leg and thigh firming.” Attributing her confidence, radiance and energy for living to the daily exercise she had taken for decades, Fonda sought to help other women feel the same way—and followed through with this in her studio by keeping the class costs what she deemed low at $5.50 per session (equivalent to $19.40 today), convenient hours for working women (classes from 7 am to 9 pm daily), special “PBR” classes (pregnancy, birth and recovery), as well as other accommodations for mothers. When word got out that she would train there herself and even substitute teach there sometimes, success was inevitable. 

The question critics wondered was why—“why would the nation’s highest profile, top box-office star embark on such a basically low-profile, time-consuming venture?” It couldn’t just be sharing her love of exercise, could it? In an interview given the week of the launch, Jane stated: “I earn a lot of money and I wanted to invest it in something. But I had some good advice years ago: Never go into a business you don’t understand. Because of my personality and my profession, I’ve been involved in fitness for the past 20 years.” Perhaps more telling was the fact that the studio was actually owned by the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), an independent New Left California-based political movement led by Fonda’s husband Tom Hayden. He established the CED in 1976 after an unsuccessful campaign for a United States Senate seat. The organization, which was “called ‘progressive’ by Hayden and ‘socialistic’ by critics,” needed money and Fonda paid most of the bills in its first few years before setting up the exercise studio with the idea of creating a franchise chain that could pull in income daily for the CED. Unsurprisingly she was immediately criticized for opening the studio in Beverly Hills and not in “some less expensive ethnic ghetto where her constituency would be ‘more real’” and more closely allied with the couple’s political beliefs—the inconsistency of Fonda shifting the focus of her attacks from the Vietnam War to “the aesthetic of broad bottoms” was also raised by a number of media outlets (including the not usually critical Ladies’ Home Journal).

Jane Fonda at Opening of her studio, September 13, 1979

Jane Fonda at Opening of her studio, September 13, 1979

The studio offered a number of different classes: Stretch, Aerobic and Spot Reducing, PBR, Baby Massage, Jazz, Advanced Disco, and Ballet. For twenty years ballet had been Jane’s main form of exercise; it wasn’t until she broke her foot while shooting The China Syndrome in 1977 and needed to be ready to shoot California Suite in a bikini that she was open to trying an exercise class. Her step-mother Shirlee Fonda sent her to a class run by Leni Cazden at Gilda Marx’s Century City studio. Cazden had developed an exercise technique that toned through repetitive movement backed with popular music. According to Fonda, “Her class was a revelation. I entered so called adult life at a time when challenging physical exercise was not offered to women. We weren’t supposed to sweat or have muscles. Now, along with forty other women, I found myself moving nonstop for an hour and a half in entirely news ways.” Two years later Fonda convinced Cazden to join her in opening a studio in Beverly Hills. In May 1979 they opened “Jane and Leni’s Workout” studio in Beverly Hill, but by September it was relaunched to much fanfare as simply “Jane Fonda’s Workout.”

Jane was a fitness evangelist: “Exercise does a tremendous amount for emotional and mental stability. If you can get yourself to work out, no matter how depressed you feel, the benefits go far beyond staying fit or thin—you also give yourself the energy to confront your problems.” Exercise as a panacea was an idea first initiated in the 1960s by members of the fitness advance guard like Jack LaLanne and taken further by the jogging aficionados of the 1970s—Fonda’s beliefs clearly correlated with a larger message being sold that exercise could make one feel better and improve one’s general disposition. 

In 1981 The Workout expanded to Encino and San Francisco, and that November she released Jane Fonda’s Workout Book. Written in a chatty woman-to-woman style, Fonda’s book is really a memoir-cum-health-manual with her explicating her tortuous relationship with her body since childhood and the effects that exercise had on it and her life. In the introduction Jane proposes that the book is solely to prevent other women having the same decades of confusion as she did: “I do not consider myself an expert, but I want to share what I had to learn the hard way.  I only wish someone had shared these things with me earlier in life.” Though she had previously spoken of her problems with emotional eating, this book was the first time she revealed her battle against bulimia (then still a very rarely discussed or researched eating disorder). The combination of stardom, intimate revelations and hard exercises was catnip to the public who made it a bestseller. By March 13, 1982 it was No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction list; it was No. 1 on the bestseller list for over six months and over 16 months in the top five through 1983.

Stuart Karl, an early producer of home improvement videos, approached Fonda in 1981 about making a video of the exercise routine that appeared in her book. Initially reluctant, Jane thought it might be bad for her career as an actor but finally decided, “What the heck, it won’t take long, not too many people will see it and a video will bring in a little extra funding to CED.” Karl partnered with RCA who made $50,000 available for production of the tape. Leni choreographed the workout, Jane wrote the script, Sidney Galanty was brought in as director based on his political ads for Hayden, and the studio’s trainers exercised behind Jane. The first VHS workout tape, Jane Fonda’s Workout, was released in April 1982 and included a half-hour beginner’s workout and a one-hour session for advanced exercisers. Home video players were in their infancy and workout tapes untested; the VHS sold only 3,000 copies in the first month but quickly caught on by word-of-mouth as exercisers learned the value of a taped workout versus learning from a book or record. Many people bought VCRs in order to use the workout, sending VCR sales soaring and creating the home video revolution.

Leading classes around the country in support of the book and video (and the many more books and videos that followed in quick succession), Fonda charmed even the most antagonistic and unfit crowds. As The Atlanta Constitution admitted, “Whatever your opinion of her politics, here was Jane Fonda, mature, bright, accomplished and sexy, embodying everything good about being a woman today.” The hundreds of thousands of people purchasing her products might not have openly supported her politics but their money fed directly into running the CED. A sign in the lobby of her studios stated, “Profits from The Workout support the Campaign for Economic Democracy in its efforts to promote alternative sources of energy, stop environmental cancer (and) fight for women’s right, justice for tenants and other causes related to environmental protection, social justice and world peace.” Sales reports for the VHS differ drastically—from 200,000 to 3 million sold within two years—but at $59.95 per copy, that amount of sales can finance a lot of politics. Fonda contributed around $1 million to Hayden’s successful California State Assembly run in 1982, and in 1984 it was reported that The Workout paid CED $40,000 a month and reinvested all other profits for CED’s economic future. 

Jane Fonda’s Workout with Weights

Jane Fonda’s Workout with Weights

Criticized by sports doctors and physiologists for aspects of her original workout, Fonda set to learning more and as information shifted with new research she adapted and developed new workouts. Each cassette and book was a success—Jane Fonda’s Workout Book for Pregnancy, Birth and Recovery (1982), Women Coming of Age (1984), Jane Fonda’s Workout Challenge (1984), Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Workout (1984), Jane Fonda’s New Workout (1985), Jane Fonda’s Low Impact Aerobic Workout (1986), Jane Fonda’s Workout with Weights (1987), Start Up with Jane Fonda (1987), Jane Fonda Presents SportsAid (1987), Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout (1989), Jane Fonda’s Lean Routine Workout (1990), Jane Fonda’s Light Aerobics and Stress Reduction (1990)—though the line of workout clothes she debuted in early 1984 was beset by protests and bomb threats to retail outlets due to her politics, late delivery times and poor sales. Composed of traditional dancewear items like Fonda wore in all photos and videos (leotards, tights, legwarmer, warm-up sweaters and sweats) as well as full-length robes, shorts, shirts, jackets and pants, many of them were emblazoned with “Go For The Burn.” Within 8 months her licensee was facing bankruptcy and the line was pulled from shelves. 

Jane Fonda: Fat-Burning Latin Dance Workout

Jane Fonda: Fat-Burning Latin Dance Workout

By 1986 the original tape was declared the “largest-grossing video in history” with more that 1 million units sold. All of this increased fame and fortune came at a price—Fonda and Hayden separated in 1989 and divorced the following year. Though her studio can be seen as a progenitor of today’s boutique fitness craze, it had trouble competing with the late ‘80s and early ‘90s trend for “health clubs offering everything from juice bars to racquetball”—she closed the original Beverly Hills location in 1991. Fonda continued to release workout videos until 1995 before taking a 15-year break from being the public face of fitness. In 2010 she returned with a series of Prime Time DVDs geared toward older exercisers—at 73, still deliciously firm and full of energy. 

Jane has always been her best advertisement. With sparkling eyes, a bright smile, and lithe tight muscles, it is hardly surprising that many people were able to forgive her all of her transgressions in their desire to cultivate some of her vitality, beauty and fitness. As for the videos, they are actually pretty great. As tastes today have shifted away from aerobics, people often describe the workouts as dated but in general they are hard, fun and effective. While I wouldn’t recommend doing the first tape barefoot (as she does) unless you have a cushy floor and I wouldn’t do her most advanced (the Workout Challenge) every day, they are a welcome change of pace—usually a mix of high impact aerobics, high repetitions of toning exercises and some ballet-based movements, though she has something for everyone with various weights workouts, low impact aerobics, and her 2010 walking video. 



My personal favourite? Jane Fonda’s Workout Challenge. Unlike the other videos it is just Jane in the studio, except for two male dancers who join her for the aerobics section. At 90 minutes it is a long video, but can easily be divided up into different sections. I have to admit that on a bad day I know to turn this workout on and follow along with Jane through her warm-up, arms, a very upbeat aerobics dancing section, balance, and waist—fifty minutes in, with my good mood confirmed, I’ll be ready to truly face the day. 

Looking for a fun workout with some really good looks? Jane Fonda’s Lean Routine is filmed in a set designed to look like a New York rooftop at night, and features Jane in a black lace bodystocking accompanied by exercisers in denim cut-offs, leather bustiers and heavy studded belts. The neon and animal print leotards paired with coordinating athletic socks in Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout is also a total treat. 

Who’s inspired to dust off their leotard and do a little aerobics?

From Jane Fonda’s New Workout, with Leslie Lilien singing "Do It".

We just adore a good bodysuit - don’t you?