Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Aside #14: Aerobics: One Noun That Changed a Life

November 2011

Aerobics.  The one noun that changed my life.  This is my homage to the world of Aerobics Fitness.   

A large chunk of my adult fitness life has been spent as an aerobicizer -- high impact, anaerobic, sweaty, crowded, good times.... more so in years gone by than now ;) but the love remains. 

Aerobics has been the source of my energy, my social network, a place to connect with close friends, and a sanctioned outlet for my love of music and dance. It kept me motivated, balanced, energized, fit.  I planned my participation in each class carefully ... every day, for hours on end on weekends, while travelling for work or holidays, during times of serious illness ... nothing stopped me. 

Along the way, I've been fortunate, and amazed, to meet kindred souls, both participants and instructors alike, all of whom share the passion for hot, sweaty, super-hyped adrenaline bodies dancing up a frenzy to choreography and music that would literally set my blood on fire. 

I couldn't find a comprehensive piece of research on the history of Aerobics fitness or even here in Ottawa.  So below is my own take, with my own memories, and heavily laced with my own journey.  So, let me 'Go Crazy on You' in a whimsical, nostalgic kindof way.  WooHoo. 

What is Aerobics, exactly?

Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a physician working at a San Antonio air force hospital in Texas, first coined the word 'Aerobics' and published a program dedicated to 'total wellbeing' in 1968.  It sold about 30 million copies and is no longer published but it is indeed a classic.  

Dr. Cooper's motivation was a system of exercises to help prevent coronary artery disease. He introduced a point system for different types of cardiovascular fitness as well as fitness tests to determine individual fitness levels.  His has maintained a life-long commitment to research and programs to encourage cardiovascular well-being and established two well known institutions, The Cooper Institute and the Cooper Aerobics Centre in the U.S. 

Dr. Cooper had the moves but NOT the groove.  It took Jacki Sorenson, a fitness instructor, who in 1969 combined aerobic exercises, dance and music in a class format for Air Force wives at a base in Puerto Rico.  YouTube has a clip of the type of aerobics dance moves from that era.  It's completely hysterical to watch it now and think back on how far aerobics dance has progressed.  Her Jacki Sorensen's Fitness Classes still exist throughout the world.   

And Then Along Comes Jane ....  

Jane Fonda was my personal epiphany into the world of Aerobic Fitness and dance.  She was the first to really break into the Canadian mass market through VHS videos and I embraced home videos as my personal fitness mecca. 

(Short Note here:  I may have embraced the fitness craze but NOT the clothing.  No plunging or thong-y multi-coloured spandex, no leotards, definitely no leg warmers... But I did have BIG Hair. I was/am always outfitted in your basic black top, bottom, socks, wristband and warm-up jacket. :) 

My BJ (Before Jane) period was shall we say intermittent fitness-wise.  In my 20s and early 30s, I mostly worked out at the YMCA on Argyle Street in Ottawa where we would run around the large gym in a circle like hamsters on their wheels.  There was music and an instructor but mostly it was a place to meet friends.  I'd go through periods of fitness buff-ness and being so bored with it I'd drop out.  I tried other classes in the '80s, jazz in particular, but lacked enough formal training to last through many classes. 

By the time I met my virtual Jane, my fitness level was non-existent.  She entered my life at a moment of extreme stress and change. Husband and I had just moved to Winterpeg in 1988, celebrated an anniversary by getting married and I had taken a leave from my job as head of public affairs at an Advisory Council.  I loved the job but, of course, me being me, gave it more than I gave more fit-ting parts of my life.
Winterpeg was the perfect recipe for a personal funk. My memory is of 9 months of winter, square tires, battery plug-ins and cold.  Dry cold be damned.... it was friggin' cold.  I knew no one.  Even though I was on leave, I worked on contract, doing a chunk of my job from our home in Winterpeg.  I had a huge word processing machine (likely a Micom) that took up half a room and I wrote press kits stuffed with communications materials to accompany the launch of major research studies. 

The only place I knew was Purolator Courier.  I'd arrive there most nights just before its 10 p.m. closing time, diskettes in hand, and send an express package to Ottawa.  It would arrive there before 9 a.m. the next day (so who said you need Email and the Internet anyway?)  The only time I got out was to take time for another contract that came my way i.e., to help organize a conference to encourage women to enter politics.  Today, I'd tell 'em to run the other way ... fast ... but, in those days, I was younger and more idealistic.

Instead of a down funk-y 9 months, Jane Fonda made me 'feel the burn', in the form of a video cassette called Jane Fonda's New Workout Video .  It galvanized me.  I could not get enough. The concept of running and exercising to music ("Do It" was a particular favourite) hit the endorphin spot.  Every day I'd stop working around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. and the Cat -- Mortimer -- and I would head for the family room, close the curtains on the white world outside, pop in the video, crank up the volume, and enter Jane zone for hours until Husband got home.

I loved the choreography so much that I learned it all by heart, intent on matching Jane move for move. I acquired more VHS cassettes (Jane did 23 in all) and moved between Aerobics and resistance videos.  I made friends with others in the field, like Kathy Smith and Husband tried Richard Simmons whose focus was more '50s and '60s rock 'n roll.  The house rocked.  The cat would lie under me when floor work was required and I'd have to 'pet and crunch and pet and crunch and scritch and double crunch and double pet'....

My Ottawa Aerobics Scene

By the time Husband and I returned to Ottawa and me to my job in 1990, I was securely launched into the Aerobics fitness craze.  Or thought I was.  It didn't last.  Super stress led once more to super unfit me.  The Council imploded with feminist politics.  I jumped to a royal commssion to do communications and well...more nasty politics, this time centred around post-structural feminism and power.  The commission finally exploded onto the front pages of every national newspaper and broadcast outlet.  Many staff left, including me, at one point

I eventually returned to work, but not until making a public declaration that I would leave the office for an hour and 15 minutes every single noon hour and hit the gym, no matter what was going on, no matter what stress or workload existed... And I kept my word.  For years, I lost myself in noon classes at gyms and Clubs (all long defunct), mostly in downtown Ottawa -- like Physical Limits, BodyWorks, Downtown Fitness Institute, Sparks Street Fitness... It didn't matter what type of class -- Step, Hi/Low Aerobics, Weights, Hip Hop,a smattering of yoga.... I was there.

It was the heyday of Aerobics in gyms across Ottawa. I fought for my 12 inches of space on the Aerobics floor and woe betide any upstart newbie bunny who dared to occupy the same 12 inches.  (Aerobics rules of etiquette anyone? I would mutter loudly.)  I often did double or triple classes on weekends. I made friends with the same passionate, committed people and this social network became my daily connection with the world of Aerobics. 

There was an elite group of Aerobicizers at the time at the BodyWorks Aerobics Studio on Elgin Street above the Mayflower Restaurant.  Many participants and instructors were among the first wave of the passionately committed folks and they remained actively involved for decades.  A close friend was among the first to work out there, and for years I had been amazed by her lithe stretching ability and passion for classes.

But it took me three trys to actually walk into a class there.  The first time I peeked in, I fled to Elgin Street, terrified at the intensity of the workouts.  When I finally steeled myself and made it into a class and found 'MY' spot (2nd row left toward the stereo), I was hooked.  To me, this was the place to be... participants worked out with intensity (some of them also hung out and made out together but I was pretty much on the fringe of all that).  

I found BodyWorks particularly cutting edge in music and choreography.  I revel in memories of classes with a live drumer  working us up to a peak of cardio frenzy (I know... I know. And it WAS primitive and primordial.)   One of my favourite instructors (I had many faves) used to get the class going in a pattern of moves, and then crouch down at the front, look at us and shout "Beauty" into the microphone.  I knew what he meant.  We'd roar our approval back at him.  WooHoo...   

I split my workout time among many clubs, following the best and hardest workouts possible. I have memories of doing a class at Physical Limits at noon and then running down Elgin Street for a 5:30 p.m. BodyWorks class.  On weekends, a close friend and I would gleefully do one class at one location, hop in his sporty little car, and zoom across town to another class.  We were PUMPED. 

Branching Out

Over time, running entered my life.  I'd do the gym at noon and go for a 5 km run with Goldie the dog around the suburbs in the country.  Eventually, I sampled all the 5 and 10 K runs like Rattle Me Bones, Nordion 10 km , Great Pumpkin Chase, Beat Beethoven , Annual Santa Claus Parade run, July 1 'Hot as Hell' run.  I never had fast times... just lots of cardiovascular endurance.   

But Aerobics remained my mainstay passion.  When I travelled for work, I sought out the hottest, hardest, most cutting edge studio I could find.  BodyAlive on Yonge Street in Toronto with Al Greene was the zenith of my experience.  My nirvana.  I'd be at a fed-prov meeting somewhere in the city and the minute it concluded, I'd grab a taxi, run into the club, change, get my ticket (NO one entered a studio without a ticket because it was so crowded and popular), and do the hardest class imaginable, 2nd row right, near a pillar.

Like the long-gone logo, the classes were hard core... complex choreography... intense music ... top-notch professional instructors.  I'd do a class, shower, dash across the street to Starbucks for a few bags of coffee beans (no Starbucks yet in Ottawa), flag a taxi, and head for Toronto Island for the last flight to Ottawa, often dropping into my seat in the nick of time, smelling of coffee beans, and still sweating (despite the shower) from the workout.  I'd practically fly the plane on my own adrenaline. 

One of the absolute highlights of those years was my 40th birthday, which came with a ticket from Husband to go to San Diego to see the International Aerobics Championships, featuring the Canadian champion who just happened to be a fave instructor from Ottawa.  It was more gynastics than aerobics but it was a thrill to watch the competitions.

The same instructor/national aerobics champion introduced me to plyometric jumping which ramped up my workouts to a new level.  I  remember the first time I did a tuck knee jump high into the air, followed by a flying jack ... He was behind me and propelled me still higher.  It took high impact classes to a new level for me. 

When Husband and I travelled from San Francisco to Los Angeles one holiday, I sampled every type of Aerobics class available between the two cities.  The classes were all light years ahead of Canada and little old Ottawa in every way -- moves, music, choreo, type of class.  San Francisco was hard-core step...  Carmel gave me the first taste of tai chi and pilates which were unheard of in Ottawa at the time ... I even tried a Pilates Reformer class, which was a stretch (small insider joke). LA was a smorgsbord of every type of class imaginable. The clubs were gi-normous.  I entered huge rooms with giant TV screens projecting the instructor so participants, numbering 200 or 300, could readily see him or her. 

My favourite LA memory is of an Environment conference I got to attend but then stayed behind for a Saturday morning workout in a warehouse somewhere in LA.  The 'cash only' class was a two-hour special workshop marathon given by one of the superstars of the Aerobics world.  She was unforgiving.  I've forgotten her name but the memory of that class remains. 

I had a somewhat shameful memory of trying to get into the Reebok Sports Club in New York.  A membership at that time was $10K a year.  I was outraged to be told that not only could I NOT pay for a drop-in class (excuse me!), I could only get a tour around the 160,000 square foot facility IF I planned to become a member.  I wrote nasty e-mails to Reebok on returning home about their lack of global leadership.  Unanswered of course.

Fitness conferences in the summer and winter were fun/fit times.  Can Fit Pro Conference at the Toronto Convention Centre was an opportunity to cram in 5 or 6 workshop workouts every day for up to five days with 6,000-10,000 other participants.  I didn't drink, smoke, eat sodium, or a lot of red meat and I LOVED it all.  Like my close aerobics friends who attended with me, we were High all the time.. on adrenaline! 

The times they are 'a-changing....'

After a decade of Aerobics bliss, the club scene in Ottawa inevitably began to change.  One club went bankrupt (twice), others followed.  BodyWorks shuttered its Elgin Street location with little notice to members because of noise infractions meted out by the City of Ottawa.  Favourite instructors moved on or quit teaching.  The social network got married, divorced, moved, were promoted and generally had less time for fitness (ahem, the latter would be me.) Injuries and stiffness started to plague me which I tried to ignore.  I spent too much time at physio.

I (and other dedicated souls) practically needed grief counsellors as the clubs started disappearing.  We organized impromptu classes at gyms and studios. We would drag out a little ghetto-tickler/stereo with NO pitch control (horrors!) on a dolly with a gallon of water and paper cups and work out for a few hours.  I'd recruit people for the class and collect a few bucks to give to Most Favourite Instructor.  If we could have found a suitable outdoor spot we would have!  If I'm painting a picture of pathetic, I don't mean to.  We would do anything it took to feed the need.  And we were successful most of the time.   

Around that time, and way too late in the game, I did a stint at teaching Aerobics.  I knew I would never make it to the 'A' list of instructors.  My musicality and cue-ing were OK but I lack creativity with the choreography.  My cardio levels deteriorated through illness and injury.  In the heyday of Aerobics, it was all freestyle 8, 16, 32 count patterns ... the instructors came up with their own routines.  I found it took a LOT of time, but thanks to close friends, I persevered, with teaching gigs at both Ys, BodyWorks, Ottawa Athletic Centre, Florida Fitness and, finally, yes, even Goodlife. Memories of teaching on stage, with friends, are among the finest highlights of my life. 

Les Mills Programs

As clubs folded, we (I) eventually ended up at Goodlife just before Goodlife bought the licences to the Les Mills system of fitness programs, which have taken the fitness industry by storm.  Their programs are used at Goodlife (and other clubs) globally. Les Mills programs originated in New Zealand (of all places!) and I think there are now 10,000 and upwards clubs around the world using their copyrighted programs -- BodyAttack (Hi/Low Aerobics), BodyStep, BodyPump, BodyVive, BodyBalance, BodyJam ... you get the drift.  More are added every year (e.g., Sh'Bam, CX30, RPM).

Freestyle is gone... the classes are all highly researched and moves tightly choreographed.  Instructors are certified.  Class formats, new music and moves for classes are all formulaic and scheduled on a quarterly basis.  And, oh yeah, it's no longer called 'Aerobics' -- it's 'group fitness' or Group EXercise.  Everything is highly branded and corporate. 

For example, I know that if I do BodyAttack at any of the Clubs here in Ottawa, the hour-long class will consist of 5-minute or so tracks that progress through warm up, mixed to high impact, plyometric, upper body conditioning/push-ups, running, agility, interval, power, lower body and core conditioning and cooldown.  If I go to Germany to a club there with the same program, I can be confident of same progression in the class.  I will know all the moves (the grapevines, heel digs, squats, superman, running man, tuck jumps etc) and sing along to familiar music.     

The Goodlife philosophy is NOT a bad thing or a criticism of them in any way. In fact, I wish I'd lived in New Zealand and had been part of the development of the Les Mills programs.  Back in my aerobics heyday and trying to teach, I craved some kind of structure other than freestyle.  I wish Goodlife/Les Mills had been around when I was younger and/or more fit as the classes are Challenging.  I especially appreciate Goodlife in that I can use the new social media technologies to track schedules easily ... anywhere ... anytime... I remember well my days of asking hotel desks and scanning yellow pages.  

But I'd be lying though if I said I felt 100% comfortable there anymore.  The participants in the really rockin' classes (like BodyAttack) are 20 and even 30 years younger than I am.  The classes are usually jammed to the rafters, especially when the best instructors are teaching. 

I can still 'rock' with the toughest of them, albeit more low than high impact (to the surprise of the youngsters)... but there are these, ah, 'rolls', that weren't there years ago.  I've always been a class gal and not an on-my-own type of participant.  But, sigh, the day is approaching when I will need to fundamentally re-evaluate what I'm doing fitness-wise and why.  My physiotherapist would say I'm overdue;)  The Walking Burpees on the latest BA release are doing me in.....

But I continue to persevere... spurred on by the what has always motivated me -- the MUSIC, the MOVES, my FRIENDS, and most of all by the INSTRUCTORS!  My heart still sings when the endorphin rush kicks in!

OK, Just a Few Funny Moments

To end on a high note.... there were funny moments in classes throughout the years and I will close out with a couple that are relate-able. 

For example, there was the time I was running late and changed, grabbed my towel, ran into the gym, started working out, went to use my towel and discovered (to my utmost embarrassment) that the 'towel' was my 'bra'.  I scurried to put it away at the side of the room. This was MUCH to the amusement of the back row of lads who would mutter at the start of every class, "Ok guys, Up Periscope".  I didn't care. I'd turn and tell them to "fill their boots or running shoes". 

There was the time I got kicked out of a class in San Francisco for inadvertently taking someone's spot (I didn't sign up in advance).  I was OUTraged, went to storm out of the class, and fell over the step, and had to be assisted, bleeding knee and all, from the studio. 

Another U.S. tale... one very weird class I found in Washington late one evening, turned out to be a kind of pole strip-tease class to train for spots in 'clubs'.  The instructor was only too accommodating in suggesting a 'private' remedial class for me.  I lasted 30 minutes and slipped away. I joined my colleagues for dinner an hour later and DIDN'T explain where I'd been.... 'Canadian senior public servant' does the strip tease was not a rumour I cared to start....' .    

A less-funny (but it was) incident involved a wardrobe malfunction when I was teaching a large group of aerobicizers at the YMCA in the big gym.  The microphone on my head caught in well, my wig... story for another day ... and my wig started sliding backwards off my head, much to the astonishment of the front-row participants, including former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.  I still remember the song, ''Praise You'' by Fat Boy Slim, and escaping into the music room to readjust.  How I got through that class is a mystery. 

Enough.  This is too long but I'm not paring it back.  There are many, many more tales that could be told. 

Last thought.  When I see that Jane Fonda, at 72 years, is planning a new fitness DVD for newbies to the aerobics scene... I can only stand up and applaud. 

Actually, more than that, I am sure I will buy or download it and move along with her.  If she still wants to 'feel the burn'... then so will I!



  1. Loved this post...I always knew you were addicted to aerobics but I never really understood the feelings you had and what it meant to you. Thanks for sharing this very personal account of your relationship to aerobics.