Last week, while I was stuck in my room practicing social distancing, I began searching YouTube for a daily nighttime workout. For the past eight days, I had been doing the same 13-minute HIIT class, listening to the same high-pitched soundtrack that was the musical equivalent of vocal fry. The thought of looking at a solo YouTuber doing the same squat to the same electro music gnawed at my last brain cells. Bored, I searched for other workouts, specifically ones from a more distant time—well before COVID-19. I came across Tae Bo. I remembered the workout from infomercials, watching the buff and sweaty Tae Bo creator Billy Blanks punching an imaginary speed bag at a freakishly superhuman pace. He always had a legion of followers behind him, faithfully re-creating his every move. I pressed play on the free YouTube video that was released in 1998. (Back in the day, this workout would have cost “3 easy payments of $19.99.”) Blanks’s energy was enthusiastic. (Stellar clothes too.) The crowd kicking alongside him channeled the same unbounded energy. I wanted to smile like Blanks and co.! I wanted to punch my own invisible speed bag! And when I did, I was hooked.
On my YouTube workout searches, I also found a pheromone-soaked tutorial for Buns of Steel, Jane Fonda’s peppy exercises, and even a session led by O.J. Simpson. A few days later, my editor—who knew I had been on the hunt for vintage workouts—sent me an Instagram story from Amanda Cormier, a writer based in Berlin who had just finished a Tae Bo workout party. She had done it virtually with her friends from around the world. “I thought it would be fun to get my friends together to do some workouts that also double as comic relief,” she told me. “It’s a heavy time, so throwing in some retro fashion and movement lightens things up a bit. So far we’ve done Jane Fonda’s Original Workout video from 1982, Tae-Bo, and Cher’s ‘Hot Dance’ from 1992. All of them were surprisingly hard. The group started at around seven and now we have about 20 people from around the world: Berlin, Madrid, Vienna, D.C., New York, Austin.” A few days later, I saw that Outdoor Voices creator Tyler Haney had Instagrammed herself in a blue bodysuit and athletic socks, rolling her fists like an uncle at a bar mitzvah. “You’ve been asking which workout videos I’ve been doing on quarantine….Jane Fonda Workout of course!” she wrote, adding: “You can find them all on YouTube for Free. Jane was the first to bring everyday for-fun fitness to the masses. I pay homage to her as OG Queen.”
Everywhere I look, there’s another throwback workout. Drake’s stylist Mellany Sanchez recently posted snippets from Cindy Crawford’s Shape Your Body series, which the model released in 1992, on her Instagram Stories. The YouTube video is dramatic and breathy, showing the supermodel doing a variety of exercises and stretches. To the tune of Seal’s “Crazy,” with perfectly blown-out hair, she works out on a roof, in a studio, and on the beach while using a chair to kick her leg back. Her look is great: a plain black sports bra and puffy shorts, as well as a leotard on top of a pair of leggings. (“Cindy’s style, particularly her Air Jordans in the second tape and her one-piece on the beach, also never gets old,” says Sanchez.) It’s pure early ’90s gold. Sanchez initially found the actual tape years ago as a teenager. “During a summer when I was 13, I was stuck at home when I discovered my mother’s VHS of Cindy Crawford’s Shape Your Body workout. I would put on my middle school gym shorts and a bra and do her at home workout with one of our dining chairs,” Sanchez explains. “The stretch session and the flow of the workout still offer a great at-home exercise today, and I add in what I’ve learned since then.”
Social distancing is our new norm, for the moment. Running clubs have been dismantled. Gyms have closed. Self-isolation is making people more wary of jogging in much-trafficked parks. It makes sense that people are returning to the depths of YouTube. Like Cormier pointed out, there is something funny about these workouts too. Their dated look adds a layer of lightheartedness. Perhaps my search was fueled by a need for nostalgia: Why not go back to a different time, when instructors were perpetually happy rather than transparent? Right now, the YouTuber I watch for my regular non-retro workout has an episode about how she is stockpiling her fridge for the oncoming apocalypse. No thanks! I’d rather stare at a unitard-wearing Blanks telling me to “work it” via some grainy 25-minute clip. I’m not the only one. Browsing the comment section of a Tae Bo video, I noticed this: “Who’s on quarantine and found themselves here?”