Back in Time for Dinner·ROUNDUP

From racquetball to jazzercise: A look at iconic '80s fitness trends

In the 1980s, Canadians were determined to have the perfect body, and were willing to try anything to get it.

In the 1980s, Canadians were determined to have the perfect body, and were willing to try anything to get it.

In episode five of Back in Time for Dinner, the Campus women get subjected to an '80s-style aerobic workout. (3Bird Media)

The 1980s was a decade where appearances mattered more than ever. The image conscious Baby Boomers were turning to exercise to fight off impending middle age, and dragging both their children and their parents with them. Suddenly, everyone was trying to keep fit and (ideally) have fun. Or at least have it not be miserable.

Fitness fads boomed and busted, and were discarded like old running shoes. Here are a few of them that were quintessentially '80s:


At the dawn of the 1980s, racquetball looked like the sport of the future. Participation in the sport was growing exponentially, a burgeoning professional circuit was on TV and equipment sales were exploding. And then, as quickly as it had started, the racquetball boom was over. It turned out that racquetball didn't make for great TV — people struggled to follow the ball. And participation fell as the popularity of non-competitive activities like aerobics and bodybuilding began to take off. By mid-decade, racquetball clubs were closing and the sport would be forgotten by all but a few die-hards.

Health clubs

It's 1984 and Canadians are becoming 'downright maniacal' about exercise. 2:07

Before the 1980s, gyms and health clubs were mostly for bodybuilders and serious athletes. But in the early 1980s, they became big business. Gym-going was part of a broader culture of the self. You weren't just pumping iron or doing aerobics, you were engaging in self improvement. A warm-up suit worn as streetwear made a statement about who you were. The health club was a place where you could be amongst your people.

Home aerobics

The downside of an aerobics class is that you you have to a) risk getting it wrong in front of other people and b) leave your house. Why not have the class come to you? In the 1980s, Jane Fonda released her first aerobics video, and spawned a herd of imitators. Not wanting to miss out on the action, TV stations rushed to create their own aerobics shows. Among the most successful was the 20 Minute Workout, which was shot in Toronto. With its stark white background, abundant overhead camera shots and pulsing electro soundtrack, 20 Minute Workout became the blueprint for TV aerobics. In addition to being a favourite of shy fitness enthusiasts, its attractive female hosts also meant it was a cult favourite for men seeking titillation in the pre-Internet era.


Meet aerobics' jazzier, dancier cousin. Jazzercise was actually invented in the late 1960s by Judi Sheppard Missett, a dance instructor who realized most of her adult students didn't care about learning to dance, they were just trying to get some exercise. In the early 1980s, Sheppard Misset was teaching Jazzercise in Carlsbad, California. Her students were mostly military wives. Sheppard Misset starting training some of these women to be instructors, and when their husbands were deployed elsewhere, she allowed them to set up their own Jazzercise studios under a franchise agreement. By 1984 Jazzercise had 2,700 instructors, roughly 350,000 students, and was making $40 million (US) per year.

Over the years, Jazzercise has become a bit of a punchline, but it still has a dedicated core of devotees.  

Home gyms

A home gym promised all the benefits of an actual gym — minus the socializing, of course — in the comfort of your own home. The rise of the home gym dovetailed with another '80s innovation: the late night infomercial. Insomniac couch potatoes learned that they could get the body they've always wanted from the safety of their homes, working out for about 30 minutes, three times a week. And all you had to do was put a substantial, expensive piece of furniture in your basement.

Home aerobics (for children)

It's hard to say if kids wanted to be like their parents, or if parents dragged their kids along in their quest to get ripped. Either way, the '80s saw at least two aerobics-for-kids lines hit the market: the very gendered and, in retrospect, pretty problematic Get in Shape, Girl series of products, and Mousercize. Mousercize was one of the Disney Channel's first shows, and featured Mickey Mouse and a human woman as your personal trainers.


It would be disrespectful to refer to a martial art with hundreds of years of history as a "fitness trend." However, North Americans did develop a sudden interest in karate starting in the 1970s, which peaked in the '80s, and much of that interest was fitness-driven. A rash of martial arts movies — most notably 1984's Karate Kid — and a general fixation on all things Japanese, made karate seem gnarly and rad. Karate promised to help keep kids in shape, while also teaching discipline, self-esteem and a bunch of other important-seeming stuff. By the end of the decade, though, karate's popularity waned, in part due to the rise of other martial arts, like Tae Kwon Do, and in part because they just weren't churning out karate flicks like they used to.