fitness

My Magical Week of Working Out With Jane Fonda

Fonda in her prime.
Fonda in her prime.

Unfortunately, as a womyn in the 21st century, you have so many opportunities to exercise. You can do yoga in a sweltering room. You can go to some sort of Tracy Anderson baby-food gym. There is even something called Bloglates on YouTube.com.

Walking around your typical Lululemon objectivist workout space, you would never imagine it hadn’t always been there. It seems as eternal as Stonehenge! But 30 years ago, none of this female fitness infrastructure existed. Whom do we have to thank for it? Why, none other than Jane Fonda, actress, activist, and founder of the Jane Fonda workout.

The Jane Fonda workout was a true phenomenon. In 1979, Jane Fonda started a tremendously popular workout studio in L.A. This later spawned a best-selling fitness book, which eventually sold so well that the New York Times Best Sellers list started a new category for self-help (it was embarrassing that an exercise book was selling more copies than Céline spokesperson Joan Didion, or something). The book inspired a workout home video, which eventually became the best-selling home video of all time (altogether, she sold 17 million copies).

I even have a dim memory of my mother doing a Jane Fonda workout. I say “dim” because I literally only have five memories from childhood and they are mostly of class trips. (In fifth grade, we went to the Museum of Science!)

“Oh yeah,” she told me when I asked if she had ever done “the Jane” (which is how people refer to it, apparently). “I watched it all the time when we lived in Cleveland. Your brother used to roll around on the floor every time I did it.”

“Did I do the workout with you?” I asked, thinking that perhaps my incipient interest in health and wellness had been been awakened in such a moment, like Woody Allen watching his first Ingmar Bergman film.

“You hated moving. You didn’t even like going outside. Remember?”

“Ahh,” I said. I had not remembered that!

With the recent re-release of Jane’s old workouts on DVD, I figured it was time for me to actually try the exercises that started it all. Maybe these tapes actually did make me who I am today, a writer of health and wellness in Nieuw Amsterdam, and I just don’t remember. Also, I still hate going outside, and Jane Fonda is all videos, so that is a plus.

A class in progress. Photo: Ron Galella/Getty Images

The Original Workout

I put on the Original workout DVD one frigid Saturday after a shitty brunch in which I ordered eggs with a side salad by accident (it seemed as if there were going to be hashed-browns but then there were not). I am excited to work out in my kitchen, though. I should have just made eggs here and not gone outside.

In the DVD’s brief introduction, present-day Jane wears a beautiful pink leather jacket (I want it!!!) and explains why the workout was such a success back in the ‘80s. According to Jane, at the time, “most gyms were primarily for men.” Jane raises just the slightest hint of an eyebrow as she says this, because that’s all you have to do when you’re a baller.

Then I have to choose between the beginner and the advanced versions of the workout. Modestly, I start with the beginner.

The workout starts with Jane in a beautiful striped leotard chilling in this dance studio. The music in the background is a blaring saxophone, kind of like a very loud Steely Dan song that has no words and no real tempo or anything. Then, a bunch of athletic-looking dance-types stumble into the studio. There really are so many people. A man in athletic shorts and tights. Another man, in thigh warmers! Also some girls, who all wear leotards resembling swimsuits. No one is wearing shoes.

To be honest, the whole routine is pretty easy. There is a ton of stretching and most of the exercises are kind of like what a broken doll would do if it knew Pilates. The aerobics portion only lasts five minutes. However, almost immediately everyone starts sweating a TON. Jane is drenched. No one’s leotard can keep up with the amount of sweat, which makes me think everyone should be wearing a T-shirt.

One thing is that I kind of like this Steely Dan song. It’s so much better than real Steely Dan songs about Bard College, etc. I do the advanced version of the workout a few days later just so I can hear the song again.

Jane Fonda’s New Workout

A couple of days later, I attempt Jane Fonda’s New workout (a workout that came slightly later in the Fonda chronology, in which everyone wears shoes) and am all of a sudden greeted with the Proustian madeleine of my life: a song that floods me with a remembrance of things past!

After a vibrant stretching session in which everyone starts sweating immediately, Jane introduces a woman named Leslie Lilien. Without any context at all, she is going to take over for the aerobics portion! As Leslie emerges from the scrum of other dancers (one of whom is Peggy Lipton, Rashida Jones’s mom), she starts singing a song called “Do It,” which has lyrics like “There’s so much more / to you than meets the eye / there’s so much / more to you you wanna try.” Jane, from the background, instructs everyone to sing along with Leslie at home so we know we aren’t getting too out of breath during this 15-minute aerobic dance. And guess what? I somehow knew this song before Leslie started singing it! I know every single word, even though it has a million verses. I must have learned it while my mother exercised. It’s the best song, too.

This iteration of the workout is slightly less balletic, and slightly more aerobic. It reminds me of a very anatomically unsophisticated Tracy Anderson regime, with way WAY more sensical directions and ease of use (Tracy’s very into being like, “Now we’re doing this!” and then launching into an insane hopping routine with no explanation).

Later, after doing the slightly longer advanced version of the exercise regime (which has a reprise of “Do It”), I go online and try to find Leslie Lilien. Where is she now?? Unfortunately, I only find the Q&A section of Jane’s website, in which someone asks Jane what happened to Leslie and Jane replies, “Susan, alas I have not kept up with Leslie.”

Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Workout

There is this amazing part in Jane Fonda’s autobiography in which she describes a video she shot where “I had thought it would be funny to have a guy seem to crash the class, just sort of come in late and insert himself into the back row and then act very crazy. To this day people refer to ‘that tape with the crazy guy.’”

What?? That is so funny I am LOLing right now! I hope the Prime Time workout contains this man!

Unfortunately, it does not. The good thing is that (not that you can tell from the accumulated sweat) this is the easiest Jane Fonda workout I could have possibly imagined. I think this workout is for old people. I have a lot of evidence to support that: (1) it’s basically an easy ballet class where you don’t do pliés and use a chair as a bar, (2) there are a million old people in the class, (3) it is called Jane Fonda’s Prime Time workout, (4) the only soundtrack is jazz flute, and (5) there’s this super-old man in sweats in the background who is really bad at all the exercises. At one point he says, “I need a drink!” and Jane yells back, “Herb, you don’t drink!”

Jane Fonda’s Low Impact Workout

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. This video starts with a man, in a flat red cap, blue hammer pants, and a Hawaiian shirt, coming into the dance studio, looking extremely confused. When I see him, my heart skips a beat! Is this the famous video??? MAYBE IT IS.

But is this man “acting crazy”? It’s hard to say. He keeps asking people where he is, because he is confused. No one has any idea. When Jane is ready to start the class, the man strides up to her and says, “Is this a rehearsal or something?” and then Jane responds, “Excuse me, what?” and then they both shrug and he stays in the class. The whole time he’s mildly bad at the exercises, but not even insanely bad or anything. It is a very typical low-impact aerobics workout of the ‘80s school. There’s a lot of grapevining, for example.

Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout 

I am sad because this is the last Jane Fonda workout I ever have to do. And what do I even have to look forward to now? A random man has already barged into the workout. I have already experienced my personal Rosebud. Can Jane Fonda still surprise after a week?

Yes! For example, at the start of this workout, a claymation version of Jane pops out of a claymation gym bag. This is only the beginning of the modern special effects that are in this video, however. At one point, Jane Fonda is doing a salsa dance and then, flash bang, Jane Fonda is doing the salsa dance in front of a screen of real salsa dancers. Later, Jane Fonda is doing a little jig and POW! She’s doing a tiny Riverdance in front of Riverdancers in Ireland. I actually remember this video as well because my mom had it too. Perhaps this is the place I learned how to dance? The dances are easy, so it makes sense. The salsa is just step lunges.

Well, my week with the Jane Fonda workout is just about over! I think I’ll miss her. I like her easygoing approach to exercise. Fitness these days has become so stratified and so difficult. Classes like SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp can make someone who already isn’t in good shape feel so self-conscious. Random ballet-style workouts are fun, but usually you have to wear some kind of exposed bra contraption and who can do that?? But the Jane, a combination of cardio and ballet/Pilates, is a workout that everyone can do, in the comfort of their own sweatpants. Even seniors! And a random guy from off the street. And a woman who hates being outside.

My Magical Week of Working Out With Jane Fonda