Not long ago a friend of mine came over with a new cache of VHS tapes he had recently acquired. Among them was something that I hadn’t seen before; David Carradine’s Tai Chi Workout. As my friend and I were watching the tape I began wondering what Carradine’s uniformly leotarded extras were thinking. They seemed unenthusiastic, distracted and uncharacteristically deadpan for an exercise video (I’ve seen more than I wish to admit.) Were they silently lamenting the hideous color scheme of their outfits, or irritated by the tinny fake “Asian” music in the background? Perhaps they were trying to keep from laughing at Carradine’s thinning bowlcut and twig-like arms. Frankly, they looked storied, unstimulated, as if they’ve seen it all before. Just like any other job, I can picture them bitching about work and talking behind the boss’s back. Were they just going through the motions to collect a check, did they exchange war stories, sabotage each-other’s work? Undoubtedly, as the market for these tapes was exploding in the middle ’80s an entire industrial subculture must have sprung up. For this reason I started wondering what sorts of strange tapes were getting released as the market grew.
I propose this Preliminary Taxonomy of Exercise Video as one possible way to begin looking at this vast and I suspect largely forgotten piece of media history. Like the prototypical movie genres with which we are all familiar, my categories and subheadings for exercise videos are somewhat ephemeral. As there are often no explicit divisions between horror and science-fiction for example, the lines here are equally fuzzy. For another thing, I haven’t seen many of these tapes and so, I’m making a best guess based on prior experience and knowledge. Listed after each category description are some proposed examples. Ideally, we can use these categories to build a more complete picture of the history of home video and VHS.
The first subdivision we can make is between Legitimate exercise programs and Novelty programs. The first consists of a number of subcategories (described below) but the content is first and foremost about exercise. At first this will seem quite obvious, but the difference will become clear when I explain the second category later.
The category containing the vast majority of video programs is what I’ve dubbed Legitimate. All of these contain to a greater or lesser extent some level of regimented activity intended to be “exercise.” Anything from aerobics to tai-chi, to Jazzercize falls under this broad classification. As the exercise video “genre” began to take off, a number of unisex and male specific programs appeared. It is of course perfectly reasonable to assume that any program could be used by any person regardless of gender or age, but the target demographics can be fairly accurately ascertained by looking at the promotional art (box) and the people “performing” (the extras who were making fun of Carradine). Hence, under the Legitimate heading, we have four other subcategories in order of descending size of market; Women’s, Unisex, Men’s and Elderly/Disabled.
These exercise videos comprise probably the largest group for much the same reason that diet programs are primarily marketed to women; Western patriarchal culture unfortunately tends to value women in proportion to their physical sexual desirability. There are a huge number of programs from the MTV’s The Grind video series to A further subcategory of Women’s exercise videos are the Psychological programs.
Buns of Steel
Abs of Steel
Jane Fonda’s Aerobics
These feature a distinct mental component in addition to physical exercise. This category can be further subdivided, the first being Placebo, which includes such positive thinking or feel-good programs such as those in Richard Simmons videos. A few of the videos in this category might hypothetically be closer to the Novelty category depending on the proportion of new-agey, good-vibe psychology to actual exercise. Susan Powter’s programs might fall in this category because although they stand on a foundation of exercise and nutrition, they also emphasize developing a positive self image. (Something that might implicitly come from improving one’s appearance and health but which in this case is an explicit element in the program.)
Big on Fitness
Healing Exercises for Mind, Body and Spirit
Bodywatch: Relaxation Exercises
The second subset of Psychological is Identity videos which rely heavily on the idea of lifestyle and image as much as exercise. In the same way that people buy products like shoes, cars, or dish soap because of a celebrity endorsement, these videos bank on consumption as a matter of personal (auto) typology. While they are sold on their content, they are also marketed by “brand.” Again, the programs likely feature legitimate exercise regimens, but the sales pitch relies less on the veracity of the program itself than on the name and image (physical appearance) of the celebrity with whom the consumer identifies. Nobody ever admits that they do this, but if we didn’t, marketers wouldn’t constantly do it with so much success. I’ll also tentatively place videos like the Christian exercise program Heart, Body & Soul Christian Fitness in this category.
Arnold Schwartzenegger’s Fitness Express
Christy Curtis’ Soap Star Workout
Paula Abdul’s Get Up and Dance!
A fairly self explanatory category, the boundaries may nevertheless be a bit blurry where programs may arguably lean toward one gender or the other. I tend to think these videos will typically have been released later in the 1980s and later as the market started to diversify.
Billy Blanks Tae Bo
Body by Jake
David Carradine’s Tai Chi
Karatecize the Tony Greco Way
Power Walk Plus
This is probably the most straightforward of the legitimate exercise videos because there is virtually no other motivation other than physical therapy. For the most part these consist of exercise programs, usually low-impact, for people over 60 or those confined to wheelchairs and the like.
Sit and Be Fit
Exercise Can Beat Arthritis
Armchair Fitness for Seniors
Sit Down & Tone Up
Angela Lansbury’s Positive Moves
Prime-Time Fitness with Bev Harris
Rita Moreno Now You Can!
Pathways: Exercise Video for People with Limited Mobility
Let’s Have Fun! An Exercise Program for People with Special Disabilities
There are a small number of programs that were marketed explicitly toward men. As American culture became increasingly health conscious across the board, unisex and male specific exercise programs increased, but in the early years of exercise home video they were much fewer and far between. As such they are harder to find, but some examples include Navy SEAL Burnout PT Challenge and Phil Simms NFL Workout. Like women’s videos however there is also a subset of the Men category which appropriately brings us back to the second of the original two categories; Novelty.
Becoming a U.S. Army Ranger Workout
Elite Fitness Systems Navy SEAL Ab Blast
As I’ve explained above, Legitimate exercise videos are above all about exercise. However, there is a second category that falls on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Novelty exercise video. This category also consists of two separate classifications; Children’s and Sexualized. There are also some weird outliers like Buddy The Wonder Dog’s Instructional Exercise Video which purports to help you teach your dog to play competitive sports (though I suspect they’re using “exercise” here as a noun and not a verb).
Although likely to contain some element of physical activity, are more about fun and games than exercise. The important thing is that the games are meant to get children active and moving around. Furthermore, many of them are marketed under a brand or a celebrity name and would appear to be less about the exercise than about capitalizing on children’s impulsive desire for certain product lines. (This might be seen as a less developed form of Identity consumption.) A fine example would be the Barbie exercise videos which intend to capitalize on the parent product line’s implantation of vanity and self-consciousness.
Alyssa Milano’s Teen Steam
Barney’s Exercise Circus
Sesame Street Elmocize
Sure, any exercise video could conceivable be used as fantasy material for someone, but only a few are deliberately intended this way. (A particularly creepy example of the former is the Alyssa Milano video noted above. Just read the Amazon reviews.) An example of the deliberate type would be Chyna Fitness, a program in which WWF wrestler Chyna does in fact go through a fairly rigorous weightlifting regimen. However, she also repeatedly makes less than subtle sexual references and the camera often lingers on non-muscly parts of her body.
Linnea Quiggley’s Horror Workout
Warm Up With Traci Lords
The home-video medium profoundly and permanently transformed the transmission of culture, how we communicated ideas and how we “saw” movies (in the metaphysical sense, not just the literal sense). None of the research I’ve read (admittedly a number of years ago) looks at this aspect of the medium. The first studio features were only test marketed on home video in 1982, the same year that the first of Jane Fonda’s Aerobics videos was released. Exercise video therefore may very well have had as much to do with the rapid growth of the VHS market in the early ’80s as the often cited example of pornography. This is because it gave women a reason to be interested in the format. Producers and distributors of exercise video effectively captured the “other half” of the public’s interest in home video systems, sparking a cottage industry that continues digitally to this day.