If you spent any time in the 1980s, you’re likely familiar with the fiery ginger permed hair, the neon tank tops, the short shorts, and the enthusiastic high-tenor coaching of the one and only Richard Simmons.
As one of the original fitness influencers, Simmons was a pioneer in the era of dance-based aerobic exercise. With flamboyant style, contagious energy, and a commitment to creating an inclusive environment for all bodies, Simmons opened his own studio in 1974 in Beverly Hills. This was, of course, “after consulting with doctors and nutritionists to ensure the safety of a program tailored to the needs of everyone, from the overweight and obese, to seniors and the physically challenged.”
In the ’80s, with the advent of the VHS home video experience, Simmons recorded exercise videos for anyone to watch (and sweat to) at home, well beyond the borders of Los Angeles. Sweatin’ to the Oldies was released on VHS in 1988, and the optimism and inclusivity, the accessibility, the fun and humor, and the low-impact of it all created a global craze (right alongside Jazzercise and Jane Fonda).
But does it still hold up today?
I decided to give it a go myself—and was delighted to experience the dopamine rush and can’t-stop-smiling effects. Having recently partaken in several Jazzercise classes in the past few years, this was a familiar style of exercise (of which I’m very much a proponent).
What the workouts are like
Watching a Richard Simmons workout video sometimes feels like watching a musical number in a movie, versus a guided workout. And the more recent videos from his LA studio (late-era Richard, if you will) still have the same sparkle as well.
These workouts are bodyweight only (equipment-free!), incorporate dynamic stretching warm-ups and cooldowns, and are always set to upbeat music. They’re cardio, obviously, but not in the way we know cardio in recent years… no HIIT here, just hitting the beat (sorry, couldn’t resist a cheesy dad joke).
It’s important to note that while a lot of Simmons’ messaging from decades ago is centered around weight loss, his movement and exercise is suitable for any fitness goal. Simmons was born in the 1940s, and lost over 100 pounds before becoming a fitness instructor, which strongly influenced his messaging (including, obviously, the name of his studio: Slimmons). However, Simmons was adamant about not letting weight determine worth for his millions of fans.
But unless you’re trigged by talk about weight loss, this doesn’t make his workouts feel like a no-go. I myself do not exercise for the purpose of shedding pounds, and still found plenty of joy, physiological and psychological benefits in his peppy dance routines.
Where to find the workouts
Fortunately, you don’t need a VCR handy to try these yourself. You can buy full episodes on Amazon, or find clips on YouTube.
One comment on YouTube reads: “We all made fun of this guy but in reality he changed many lives for the better. His personality is one of a kind!”
It’s true: For decades, Simmons was the butt of so many (largely homophobic) jokes. But when you actually give his workouts a chance, you realize just how much fun he brought to the act of exercising.
If vintage music and aerobics don’t do it for you, there are plenty of other ways to dance up a sweat. For a 21st-century take, try a dance class video with The Fitness Marshall. Frontman Caleb Marshall considers himself a blend of his two icons, Britney Spears and, of course, Richard Simmons (in fact, his Instagram bio reads: “The love child of Richard Simmons and Britney Spears”). Simmons was a major influence on Marshall, who now brings a very similar upbeat positivity—and accessible, all-levels, doesn’t-feel-like-exercise movement—to living rooms around the world. He’s even got the style down… down to the tank top.
As any fitness pro worth their salt will tell you, the best type of exercise is the one you’ll actually do. Often this comes down to something that 1. Puts a smile on your face and 2. Doesn’t leave you injured or overly fatigued. So many people have found that perfect combo with Richard Simmons, regardless of the era.
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