May 25, 2009 / 10:15 AM / 10 years ago

Retro workouts: Let's Get Physical again

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Maybe it’s a “Back to the Future” kind of thing.

TV personality Richard Simmons (L) leads a parade of models dressed in clothing adorned with fruit and vegetables, both real and faux, during a "summer salad fashion show" at New York's Grand Central Terminal June 2, 2006. REUTERS/Wish-Bone/Ray Stubblebine/Handout

The 1980’s, that bygone era of big hair, big shoulders, big jewelry and general gaudy excess, seems to be inspiring the latest craze in back-to-basics fitness — retro workouts.

“Everyone enjoys the feeling of nostalgia while breaking an intense sweat,” said Carol Johnson, who teaches Retro-Robics, a leg warmers optional old-style aerobics class in New York City.

Johnson, group fitness coordinator with the Crunch fitness chain, conceived of Retro-Robics as “an homage” to the decade that gave us Jennifer Beals’ soggy, flash-dancing and turned Olivia Newton-John’s workout headband into a must-have fashion accessory.

“Dressing in old-style aerobic outfits is all the rage,” said Johnson. “Jane Fonda’s attire is signature; Richard Simmons is an icon.”

Music for the high-intensity cardio workout also harks back to everything from heart thumping aerobics mixes to Michael Jackson, disco, Motown, and Madonna.

“The class is timeless,” she said. “Good for the heart, spirit, and wallet.”


In fact the economic downturn may have helped spur the current craving for all things low-tech fitness.

“The idea of retro is not so much turning the clock back as getting back to a basic callisthenic-type workout and away from technology,” Cedric Bryant, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, said. “You can do very effective training with inexpensive basic tools.”

Rob Piela, personal training manager at Crunch, agrees.

“The body always works in the same three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal and transverse. Any of these trends come around, it’s just reinventing for the sake of keeping peoples’ interest peaked,” he explained.

Keeping interests peaked is the guiding principle of Eric Casaburi, an entrepreneurial Gen Xer who has parlayed his love of all things 80s into the Retrofitness chain of health clubs.

Casaburi, 34, opened his first location in 2004. The retro-themed franchise has since grown to 50 centers nationwide, and 300 are planned in three years.

“I know how to attack my target audience of 30-somethings,” Casaburi said from his company headquarters in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey.

“We Gen Xers love the 80s,” Casaburi said. “I don’t think we could ever design the colors, the clothes, the music of the 80s again.”

He seems to think that’s a bad thing.

Retrofitness gyms, which average about 11,000 feet, are decked out in high-gloss retro-accented 50s “diner” decor, black-and-white checkered floors and lots of red, yellow and stainless steel.

“80s decor, 50s decore, we flash a little bit of everything,” Casaburi explained.

In the gyms’ ‘RetroTheatre’ members burn calories on treadmills, recumbent bikes and ellipticals while viewing their beloved 80s movies, such as “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, on 21st century LCD TV monitors.

Each club contains about $400,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment, even as the music is heavy on blast from the past heavy metal bands like Poison, a Casaburi passion, and Def Leppard.

“Let’s face it,” Casaburi said. “Gyms suck. You’ve gotta sweat, you’re in pain. The more of a distraction we create the better.”

And while the low monthly fee of $19.95 deserves more credit for the company’s double-digit growth than Casaburi’s taste in music, there’s no denying the meticulousness of his business model.

“I did so much research,” he said. “I learned that every 30 years is a retro, so I figured: retro. You’ve got to make it real.”

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