“Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce!”
That was the soundtrack in my first New York apartment. I lived behind a bookshelf, where I sheltered my possessions: a remnant square of carpet, bed, desk, typewriter, pile of underlined books, and, newly purchased from Crazy Eddie, TV and VCR. I owned one VHS tape, Jane Fonda’s Workout. Every night I’d pop it in and, for 30 minutes, it was just Jane and me, dancing and ab crunching and leg lifting on my patch of carpet, feeling the burn.
Jane had fluffy hair, a belted leotard, and scrunchy leg warmers. She was energetic and cheerful, and never once breathless. That sweet, girlie workout had a steely center, like Fonda herself.
My introduction to working out coincided with my introduction to working at my first real job. A few months after starting both, as I charged through Grand Central Terminal to pick up lunch for my boss, a man shoved his hand into my bag and grabbed my wallet. I calmly clasped his wrist and told him to get out of there. And he did. That was all Jane.
Jane Fonda’s Workout turns 40 years old this year; Jane turns 85. What started as a way to get fit for a bikini scene and raise money for the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a political action committee run by Fonda and her then husband, Tom Hayden, became a movement in itself.
It sparked the exercise boom, the exercise-video boom, and its subset, the Hollywood Squares–style exercise-video boom (Raquel Welch, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Jenner, Debbie Reynolds).
Jane Fonda’s Workout went on to become one of the best-selling VHS tapes of all time, and Fonda followed the original with 21 variations. Over the years, it spawned imitators and acolytes, and is even experiencing a revival today on a multitude of streaming classes. (“Give me some Jane Fonda!” calls instructor Ally Love during a Peloton barre session.)
One class, Torch’d by Isaac, was my lifeline during the pandemic lockdown. Isaac “Boots” Calpito leads the class on Instagram Live, and much of it—the leg lifts, crunches, V-sits, bridges—comes right out of the Jane Fonda playbook. “I’m a child and a student of Jane Fonda,” says Calpito. “[She] set the tone for everything that came after her.” Calpito, like Fonda, turns his class into a charitable machine, raising more than $1.5 million for No Kid Hungry by soliciting donations from his regulars.
In 1978, Fonda signed up for a dance-and-calisthenics class in Century City taught by Leni Cazden. “That’s L-e-n-i C-a-z-d-e-n,” says Fonda, spelling the name on the phone to make sure I get it right. Cazden’s workout was a killer, and Fonda was quickly hooked.
So much so that Fonda used Cazden’s choreographed moves to create the original Jane Fonda’s Workout. For decades, she didn’t give Cazden credit for the program—not to mention remuneration—and only recently acknowledged that omission.
Workouts and VCRs were fairly novel in 1982, and marrying the two gave new access to a population that had felt excluded from musclehead culture. “There weren’t gyms for women,” says Fonda. “I’m kind of astonished that at the time the Workout started, women didn’t think about having muscles.... Women who couldn’t afford to belong to a club, or didn’t go to a club because they didn’t like the way they looked—it brought all those women to a place of health that they didn’t have before.”
“At the time the Workout started, women didn’t think about having muscles.”
The workout benefited Fonda in other ways besides abs, thighs, and activism. “I’m somebody who had major body dysmorphia, and the workout really helped me,” she says. “It was changing my body and changing my mental attitude about my body.” Many students felt the same. “Women would take the class and after a month say … ‘I can sleep now,’ ‘I stood up to my boss.’”
Fonda acknowledges that the workout could have also contributed to a degree of body dissatisfaction among its participants. The extras in the video and Fonda herself are uniformly slim, uniformly uniform in their high-cut belted leotards.
The words “body” and “positivity” weren’t acquainted then. When I ask her what she thinks of the concept, she says, “You mean obesity?” After a discussion about the high price of quality fruit and vegetables and the perniciousness of fast food, she concludes, “It’s good to feel positive about your body; it’s good to love your body. I hated my body for too long.”
Now she marvels at her strength and the benefit of all those years spent in dance studios. “When my father died, he was seven years younger than I am now. He seemed so old because he was sick. I was much older when I was 20 than I am now. It has to do with my mental attitude and what I did to my body and being strong. Six weeks ago, I had a shoulder replaced. It’s a complicated operation, and it took a long time to recover. Even though I can’t use my arm, my back is strong, my abs are strong, and I’m O.K.”
Fonda is acting in a movie now with Rita Moreno, who’s 90. She’s leading Fire Drill Fridays with Greenpeace USA to raise awareness of the climate crisis and to protest governmental inaction, and has been arrested five times. The final season of Grace and Frankie, the Netflix comedy she stars in alongside Lily Tomlin, premieres on April 29, and she’s proud of what it accomplished, too.” So many women come up to me and say, ‘I look forward to aging now.... It makes me feel that there’s hope.’ That’s a big thing.”
“I’m an older woman, I’m living life, I’m working, I’m getting arrested. People tell me, ‘I’m not afraid of getting old because of you.’”
Fonda offers me some advice. When she learns that I’m calling her from Paris and that my French is fairly appalling, she says, “You need to have an affair with a Frenchman … or a Frenchwoman. I knew French academically, but I really learned to speak it in bed.”
That’s the other Jane Fonda workout. No pain, no gain!
Linda Wells spent 25 years as Allure magazine’s founding editor in chief, served as Revlon’s chief creative officer, and currently consults and sits on the boards of several beauty and apparel companies