Jane Fonda — whose 1982 video “The Jane Fonda Work-Out” sold 17 million copies — is back in the fitness fray. Three decades ago, her signature leg warmers, striped leotards and pelvic lifts spawned a fitness revolution and a whole generation of women who “did Jane,” sometimes with a group of friends, in their living rooms.
Now the two-time Academy Award-winning actress, who last month celebrated her 73rd birthday, has relaunched her workout brand, with one arm of it aimed at the older set. With her “Prime Time Walkout” and “Prime Time Fit & Strong” DVDs, Fonda puts on her leotards and leggings (sans leg warmers this time) to lead baby boomers and an older generation in a kinder, gentler, low-impact workout.
“I felt like no one was marketing to the over-50 set,” she said recently while sitting for an interview in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles, looking trim and posture-perfect, her perfectly snowy-white Coton de Tulear dog sleeping quietly on the floor beside her. “I thought, who better than me to do it? I’m old, I have a new hip, a new knee and I have credibility in the fitness arena.”
Fonda’s history in the fitness industry began in the late ‘70s, when she gave up unforgiving ballet for an aerobic regime designed to work the large muscle groups and increase heart rate. These early routines, which she learned from a Los Angeles fitness instructor named Leni Cazden, were set to music and inspired by dance. She began teaching the routines to the cast and crew while in Utah filming “The Electric Horseman” — and was surprised by how popular her basement workout sessions became.
Around the same time, she was looking for a business to help raise money for the political work she was doing with her then-husband Tom Hayden. Naive to the sensation it would become, in 1979 she opened an exercise studio on Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The release of the home fitness video three years later grew the business to a multimillion-dollar earning concern. Five fitness books, 12 audio programs and 23 videotapes later, Fonda became known more as a fitness guru than as an actress.
“She opened the door for us who were either dancers or interested in fitness to become professionals and create an industry. We wouldn’t be here without her visibility or her celebrity,” says Carol Espel, 55, the national director of group fitness for the Equinox Fitness clubs. “She helped legitimize fitness as a viable business. And it wasn’t just [the business of] workouts. It was the clothes we wore, the music we played and the studios we created.”
With the “Prime Time” series, Fonda has a bigger agenda on her mind: She’s hoping to inspire women of a certain age to experience their aging bodies in a new way. “As Bette Davis once said, ‘Aging isn’t for sissies.’ It’s hard, I know,” she says. “The old paradigm was you were born, you peaked and then you just accepted decline.” All wrong, she adds. “Research is starting to show that besides quitting smoking and eating well, staying active is one the keys to aging successfully.”
From there, Fonda gets on a roll. She explains how the frontal lobe of the brain thins as we age; how as we lose muscle mass our metabolism slows, leading to unhealthy weight gain; how the body’s ability to oxygenate blood diminishes too. She talks about the effects of exercise on mood, about age-related loss of bone mass and a study that found that 1 in 3 adults 65 and older falls each year.
Fonda’s punch line: The way to prolong well-being and quality of life is, of course, exercise. With the DVDs, she says, she hopes to offer a well-rounded option that works on balance, strength training, flexibility and a dance-inspired low-impact workout to get the heart rate up. “The good news is that, even if you never have been active before, you can start all this in your third act,” she says.
Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging, has looked at Fonda’s DVDs and says she’s devised a well-rounded workout that targets the average middle-aged orolder person who may not be in great shape but wants to start an exercise program.
He has a few bones to pick: that there’s a lack of alternative moves for people who have physical limitations, that Fonda’s technique isn’t always spot-on and that the balance section — a crucial part of any senior fitness regimen — starts with a teetering one-legged move while standing in front of a chair rather than holding on to that chair for support.
But, he adds, “at the end of the day, if she can get people moving, that’s what’s more important than anything else. We have very few positive fitness role models in the 65-plus crowd, and she’s certainly someone who can help change the expectation of what getting older means.”
Fonda’s evangelism for changing the aging paradigm did not come without study. For 31/2 years she has been consulting experts while researching and writing a book about aging called “Prime Time: Creating a Great Third Act,” a follow-up to her bestselling autobiography. Her friend Robin Morgan, an activist writer and Ms. Magazine editor who founded the Women’s Media Center with Fonda and Gloria Steinem, recalls visiting Fonda’s ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., while having a back problem. “She took me in hand and suggested some exercises that were better than the ones my physical therapist gave me,” Morgan says. “Once I got over the hilarious concept of me working out with Jane Fonda, she really helped me feel better.”
But Morgan also says Fonda’s commitment to fitness and health is no joke; it’s part of her feminism. “It’s just such a big part of who she is. … She cares very deeply about what is happening to women and children — their health, the obesity epidemic, is very much a part of that,” she says. “Our culture is good at selling the body makeover and the boob jobs, but it’s not good at selling us messages that we need to be healthy and move our bodies.”
Fonda admits she struggled for many years with body image — in fact, she launched the original workout right about the time she faced the darkness of her bulimia. Then 45, she began to realize that empowerment could begin in the muscles. But that message wasn’t what people saw, she says: Instead, she got flak, and not just for the leg warmers and thong leotards. “I was criticized early on by some women. They thought it was all about vanity and that I wanted everyone to look a certain way.”
Now we are obsessed with celebrity workouts and their bodies. Fonda expresses relief that she’s not coming of age in these times. “These magazines, with the close-ups of the cellulite, it must be very hard for some of these young girls.” But she’s also cognizant that for a celebrity, some may view her promotion of fitness and aging well as yet another message of vanity and perfection.
Fonda says she combats that skepticism by being honest. “I don’t lie about my age. I talk about the fact that I had plastic surgery. And I’m also very lucky. I have good genes and money — money for facials, for massages, for therapy, for trainers.” She laments she can no longer push 200 pounds on the leg press (now she’s down to 60 or 80) and that she had to defer her dream to trek through the Himalayas because she acknowledged her body just couldn’t hack it.
“But I’m here to encourage people that if they can’t do what they used to do, it doesn’t mean they should do nothing,” she says. “The key is to do anything — just do it more slowly.”