Let’s Get Physical (or Not?): Exercise in the 70’s

In the 70’s, exercise didn’t seem to play nearly as important a part in people’s lives as it does today. As kids, we were generally naturally active, because we only had seven television channels that showed nothing but snow for at least 30 hours per week, and moms had no problem kicking us out of the house on a weekend morning, telling us to go out and play, and reminding us not to show up again until dinner time. Exercise and sports were not heavily emphasized in my house growing up and my brothers used to say that they exercised their brains, therefore they did not need to exercise their bodies (insert eye roll here).  But I do remember a few fleeting moments of fitness over the years that influenced my future perspective on exercise and left the door wide open for Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda in the 80’s.

Jack LaLanne. When Jack LaLanne wasn’t pulling boats and tractor trailers with his teeth to demonstrate his strength, stamina, and incredibly durable dentures, he was wearing a jumpsuit and hosting an exercise show on TV geared towards stay-at-home moms. I remember mom doing a few standing leg lifts while Jack counted, but when he got to the jumping jacks, I think she went and lit a cigarette.

Jogging. When dad felt he needed to lose a few pounds (during the 4 & 20 Pies days), he would jog in a circular path around our connected living room, dining room, and kitchen wearing his crappy Converse sneakers. After his 40 laps he had probably traveled the equivalent of one city block at the speed of a Pong ball, but at least it was something. Once he completed his run, I’m sure he went and lit a cigarette. Actually, I would bet my life on it.

Metal Exercise Bands. Dad had the forerunner of today’s rubber exercise resistance bands which were heavy metal coils attached by two metal handles. The handles were pulled to stretch the coils and work your upper body . A great strengthening exercise without the fuss and muss of free weights or a barbell, until your sweaty palms forced you to lose your grip and  the metal handle wacked you in the eye. After receiving quite the shiner, dad retired the exercise bands and that’s when he started jogging in the house.

Grip Strengtheners. While most exercise routines with dad were short lived, he owned a gizmo that looked like an oversized nut cracker that he would squeeze to strengthen his grip. I never understood this one. He wasn’t too concerned if he was carrying around an extra 20 pounds and his heart wasn’t pumping blood around his body efficiently, but he always wanted to be sure that his grip was strong enough to open a jar of mixed nuts.

Gym Class. In the early years, gym class was more fun that exercise. One of the best games in gym class was dodge ball, because it was the only time of the day you were allowed to throw something at the other kids. But as we got older, gym class shifted from team games to activities that required some actual stamina. To make matters worse, in the older grades we were required to wear a gym uniform which for girls was a cross between a beach cover up and an adult diaper. When the weather got warm we would actually have to wear these outfits outside where the boys were also having gym period. Why the boys got to wear simple gym shorts and a tee shirt while the girls were subjected to blue and white striped polyester beach wear is beyond my comprehension and beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that high school gym uniforms were the bane of every high school girl’s existence. The absolute worst unit in gym class was jogging. There was no real strategy for building up stamina and cardiovascular strength and on the days when the weather wouldn’t cooperate, we had to run around the school cafeteria as an alternative to the track which produced the same cardiovascular results as running laps around the family living room. To make matters worse, our track was not regulation size due to lack of space. We had to run five laps to complete a mile rather than the standard four. So when you were done with your forth lap and headed for the bleachers, the gym teacher would tap you on the back and remind you that you had one more lap to go. But perhaps the most awful thing about jogging was that in 1979 there was no such thing as a jog bra. Girls with more than a C cup risked knocking out an eye each week when they attended gym class. After several near misses, I swore I would never run again and I refused to run the popular three mile jogging loop at my college called Perimeter Road during any of my four years there just on principle. I never ran another step until 1991, and even then I wore two jog bras layered on top of one another, just to be safe.

Running Across Queens Boulevard. This was by far the best exercise program available growing up in Queens. It required strength, stamina, commitment, practice, mental toughness, Olympic-level precision, and a very strong desire to get to the other side in one piece. Luging and the skeleton pale in comparison.

In the 1980’s, more gyms started popping up and regular exercise became more commonplace. Perhaps this was because people began to see the health benefits of exercise, but more likely it was because people needed a legitimate reason to wear leg warmers, headbands, and gym shorts with white piping on the side.