The Eccentric World Of The Workout Video

The good, the bad and the bizarre of VHS exercise tapes.

We’ve already covered the rise and fall of the exercise vinyl LP, but rising hand-in-hand with that format was the home video workout tape, a format that has survived changing formats and is still apparently as popular as ever. From the Jane Fonda Workout tape that essentially launched the format in the early 1980s, there has been a steady stream of aerobic instructional releases fronted by passing celebrities and – more recently – reality TV stars. It’s a format that seems to never grow old.

The workout tape covers all bases and age groups – there are exercise tapes for kids and pensioners, men and women. But the majority have been – at least officially – pitched at the female market, with aspirational/relatable celebs telling you how you too can have a body like theirs. If they started out as a slobby reality star and then lost loads of weight, all the better – we can all see the results of their exercise (and definitely not the benefits of having personal trainers and media managers who browbeat you into getting fit for financial gain). It’s easy to see the attraction for narcissistic celebrities of all levels – not only is it a nice little earner for little effort (most of these celebs fronted the tapes but had not actually put together an exercise regime themselves) and being told that you had the sort of perfect body that other people envied must have stroked their egos considerably. There is, after all, nothing that celebs enjoy more than telling everyone else what to do. It’s hard to think that there really were people looking at cast members from Eastenders and Coronation Street and thinking that they looked the epitome of desirable health and fitness though and I suspect many of the more misguided celebrity titles gathered dust on shop shelves.

There is, however, the (usually) unspoken secret of the workout tape, and it is this: they are not just made for people who want to get fit and can’t/won’t go to the gym. From the start of the genre, these tapes were often made with one eye on the male audience. Specifically, they were pitched at the sort of male viewer who might have been too embarrassed to buy actual porn, hard or soft, and who might get his jollies from watching hardbodied young women in spandex leotards stretching and bending. For these viewers, only one muscle was ever exercised and the producers knew very well what they liked – the cover images and camera angles were designed to provide lightweight and wholesome erotic thrills for male viewers even as they carefully avoided being too raunchy lest they put off the main audience. Stars like Page 3 Girl Kathy Lloyd and porn star Traci Lords probably straddled the fine line more than most – but both women could be said to be aspirationally fit for viewers who actually wanted to tone up and get those Buns of Steel.

Of course, a few tapes went the extra mile – there was a fascinating subgenre of nude workout tapes that only rarely even pretended that there might be some level of audience participation beyond an onanistic one. Then there were the oddities – scream queen workouts, the Barbie workout and other novelty titles that surely no one bought as actual exercise tapes.

As the aerobic phenomenon grew in the 1980s, so did the feature film cash-ins – horror movies like Aerobicide and Murder Rock, sexy dramas like Hardbodies and Perfect. As the subject of fictional narratives, the exercise boom didn’t last – but the workout tape outlived tape itself, moving to DVD and online.

Here, then, are a handful of oddball titles from the glory days of the VHS boom.

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