At the beginning of April, which, for many, marked a new month of staying at home, Jane Fonda joined TikTok. Clad in a red leotard and yoga pants, the 82-year-old actor executed a few leg lifts, instructed those watching to Google her, and urged everyone to join her for a live workout later that day. “There are too many workouts happening right now on television and on computers,” Fonda said. “What I would really like you to do is work out with me for the planet.”
Unforeseen circumstances prevented me from working out with Jane Fonda that Friday, but I dutifully signed up for text alerts in hopes of catching her next workout. Instead, I received a barrage of texts from a bot directing me to participate in Fire Drill Fridays at home, an extension of Fonda’s weekly climate change activism, optimized for the current moment. Unfortunately, there was no further information about Fonda’s famous workout routine—now, when I need it more than ever.
Thanks to quarantine, at-home workouts of all stripes have exploded, as fitness studios closed and quickly reached for ways to maintain contact with patrons trapped in their homes and eating bread, day in and day out. Peloton, Mirror, and other at-home fitness solutions are enjoying a rise in sales. Ads for at-home workouts from companies like obé and Beach Body Fitness flit between pictures of sourdough starters and completed puzzles on Instagram. YouTube yoga—including YouTube yoga for kids—is booming. Millions are thinking about working out at home, if not actually doing it, which means it is high time for Jane Fonda’s workout, a defining pop culture phenomenon of the 1980s, to make its illustrious return.
The workout itself, which I performed over a very sweaty half an hour, is hard but not like a HIIT workout. There are no burpees, mountain climbers, or box jumps in Fonda’s gym—just lithe, flexible people with dancer’s bodies, dressed like extras from A Chorus Line, stretching their Gumby limbs encased in shiny spandex. Fonda’s leotard-leggings combo is inexplicably belted, and her leg warmers match her jazz shoes. Unlike modern fitness videos, which always feature someone in the back row gamely smiling their way through a modified version of the routine, everyone participating in Jane Fonda’s exercise class seems to be pretty capable of everything required of them and performs the exercises with nary a grunt and little-to-no visible exertion. Most impressive is Fonda herself, who is incredibly flexible and in good enough shape to narrate everything she’s doing without heavy breathing.
As a workout, Fonda’s exercise program is along the lines of a barre class or any other dance-based workout routine that aims to lengthen and tone, with lots of small muscle movements with no weights. There are hip thrusts, arm circles, and the infamous leg lift section, which looks easy but is actually very difficult, especially when Fonda requested that I perform the move depicted below, which I cannot reliably explain with words, but I can say that it felt like doing an arabesque on my stomach, while small knives stabbed me in the lower back.
Historically, I abhor anything that is remotely physically uncomfortable, but earlier this year, I started dragging myself to the gym, so that I could spend one hour grunting ineffectually on the leg press machine in a gesture towards physical fitness. Once confined largely to my home, I bought a pair of dumbbells and embarked upon a haphazard strength training routine with the assistance of an app called Fitbod that algorithmically generates bodyweight workouts for me so I don’t have to think. This has been a savior, but the movements I’ve been doing are less refined than Fonda’s small, incremental pulses. Sure, squats suck, but not nearly as much as trying to engage my adductor muscles the way Fonda wants me to.
Revisiting the video is worth it for the aesthetics alone, which call to mind not only A Chorus Line, but also the iconic Mousercise video from roughly the same era, which imprinted upon me as a child. Featuring Kellyn Plasschaert, who resembles a young Rue McClanahan, and a roomful of enthusiastic children, Mousercise premiered in 1983 and very clearly took some of its cues from Fonda’s movements. Minus Mickey, the exercises themselves wouldn’t be out of place in a standard barre class or any other dance-based workout today, which is unsurprising, given the workout’s history.
Fonda became a fitness guru decades into her acting career. After breaking her foot on the set of The China Syndrome, Fonda was in search of some sort of low-impact physical exercise that would allow her to maintain her figure—healthier than the disordered eating she had maintained for most of her life, and much more sustainable. As Mental Floss points out, the moves in her original video were actually the work of her business partner, Leni Cazden, whose classes she discovered while looking for a temporary replacement for ballet. But Fonda made them famous when she released the workout video in May 1982, straight into the homes of millions of American women who were eager to begin their fitness journeys from the comfort of their own homes.
The success of Fonda’s workout empire also contributed to her work as an activist, as Karina Longworth recounts in her You Must Remember This miniseries, “Jean and Jane”; the revenue she earned from the two workout books that preceded her video went to help her then-husband Tom Hayden’s campaign for state Assembly. Hayden was one of the co-founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, and also stood trial as one of the Chicago Seven responsible for the large-scale protests at the 1968 National Democratic Convention. Fonda was his main financial support. As millions of women across the country donned leotards, shiny lycra, and headbands to perform hip thrusts from the privacy of their own living rooms, every VHS tape sold put money into Hayden’s election campaign and lined the coffers of the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a progressive political organization that rallied around a need “to respond to Reaganomics and the need to reform and revitalize the Democratic Party.” Hayden’s politics aligned neatly with Fonda’s, who has spent a large part of her career in the shadow of her activism, most famously for anti-war causes.
That political activism continues today, with her weekly protests in Washington D.C. against the government’s general inaction against climate change. Fire Drill Fridays, as they have come to be known, are often attended by Hollywood’s finest, who are now using their platforms to stand in solidarity with youth climate change activists like Greta Thurnberg. As part of her campaign, Fonda dons a distinctive red coat, which stands out in the various photographs of her publicity-garnering arrests for unlawful demonstration. Now that in-person protests are off the table, Fire Drill Friday has gone digital, pivoting to TikTok— a savvy reference to her own history as the original fitness influencer. Invoking her aerobics career in the brief clip is a clever bait and switch—after a few leg lifts, the camera cuts to Fonda in her red coat, pleading for participation, closing the gap on her two disparate identities.