Anyone else watch Season 2 of Physical this summer?! While it may be tempting to look at this Apple TV+ dramedy series as a depiction of how the 1980s made womanhood a unique challenge, the show has been surprisingly relevant amid the pandemic disruptions of today, especially for women trying to balance motherhood with any level of employment.
In fact, viewing Physical as an ’80s fitness romp that celebrates the benefits of working out is a mistake. Disordered eating, infidelity and disconnection from oneself are a few of the series’ complicated themes.
While Physical explores what it means to be an ambitious woman facing numerous obstacles, there are the universal experiences to acknowledge: feeling trapped in a relationship or way of life, getting sidelined while on the path to full potential, working through past traumas, to name a few. Overcoming these challenges is quite physical, from the schlepping it takes to find childcare for a few hours to the daily grind of recovery (or self-improvement on any level).
In this sense, exercise is a metaphor for the struggle–a regular commitment to putting in a physical effort to change and improve, often with visible results. A symbol of making time to connect with oneself while reaping the benefits of increased health and mental well-being.
Working Out in the ’80s
Like being a woman today, being a woman in the ’80s was no picnic. Check out this New York Times essay from June of 2021. In the piece, Danielle Friedman remembers how aerobics became an important force in her mother’s life, as it did for many women during the 1980s. Friedman describes seeing her mother weeping at the dining room table after learning she had to miss her aerobics class that evening due to her husband’s late work meeting.
She writes, “Aerobics, she realized, had become integral to her identity as a woman, independent from her roles as wife and mother.” She then notes that “…aerobics meant something monumental to my mom and many other women: It meant self-determination.”
While the piece goes on to discuss the complexity of the fitness industry, and Physical itself hardly takes a clear “exercise as the path to self improvement” tone, there’s something empowering in the act of strengthening one’s body, especially when, in many ways, women are still encouraged to sacrifice every ounce of themselves for the sake of their families.
Working Out Today
Have things gotten better? In some ways, yes. In other ways, we’ve taken some giant steps backwards, from pandemic parenting (and helicopter parenting) expectations to recent legislation that has pushed medical professionals to the point of wondering how close a woman should get to the moment of death before rendering necessary health care.
Months into the pandemic crisis, the articles began flowing: how decades of progress in the women’s rights arena were unraveling thanks to stay-at-home orders. Many things became clear as the crisis unfolded, especially the way mothers were expected to carry the emotional burden of the home, step away from work readily to meet the needs of their children, and put personal development on hold.
When childcare outside of the home became difficult in 2020, many adult members of the household who weren’t the main breadwinners “stepped back” from side business, professional development and creative hustles in order to survive. And that can seem like a privilege compared to what others faced. Those who worked full time and had no option to step back are still struggling to regain the personal time that they’d carved out in a pre-pandemic world. For many families, the person stepping back was the woman. Stepping back out there has proven challenging.
Pandemic parenting is no joke, folks. I say IS because even though it’s no longer 2020, COVID isn’t done with us yet, and I know no mothers whose lives aren’t plagued with pandemic-related inconveniences on a weekly basis. For example, a simple cold can lead to days of missed school as parents struggle to answer the dreaded “is it COVID?” question while following necessary illness protocols designed to minimize greater school disruption.
Before I go on, I want to share a little back story: I’m an older mom, and my path to parenthood (still ongoing), has been an extremely long and intentional journey, filled with many obstacles. I’ve worked HARD to become a parent, nothing brings me greater joy in life than my daughter, and I have full conviction that this is exactly where I need to be at this exact time in my life.
The point: even those of us who have fought for years, with every fiber of our being, for the sleepless nights and long days of motherhood are struggling after years of pandemic parenting, and being honest about challenges is important when it comes to connecting with others and asking for help. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
In the summer of 2021, I watched my first episode of Physical starring Rose Byrne. I was in it for the ’80s design and the music. It didn’t take long before I decided that whatever it took, I was going to make time for exercise. I’m no fitness queen. I don’t want a strict schedule or needless pressure. I just want to feel and be healthy, to have a clear head, and to enjoy my love of music and motion.
If I had a dollar for every awkward situation that unfolded…well, I’d still be on a budget, but I could probably source an impeccably preserved ’80s sectional sofa for my living room! Try working out while a child is hanging on to your leg and begging you to stop exercising so you can play, working out while your stressed partner asks why the music is so loud that your child can’t fall asleep (ok, that was a fair question), working out while little hands grab the remote and switch to a favorite kids’ video, or working out in a corner of the living room where there really is no space to work out, because cleaning up the disaster of a mess in the middle of the rug would take up all of what little free time you have to work out in the first place.
In conditions such as these, every leg lift, squat, lunge and bicep curl becomes an act of rebellion, a fight for your right to self-empowerment and self-improvement. It quickly struck me that it was quite ironic to be feeling all of these feelings in the year 2021, 40 years later than the confining world in which Physical’s Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) lives.
The YouTube Fitness Phenomenon
Turns out I’m not alone. During lockdown, exercise boomed. The YouTube fitness phenomenon is pretty remarkable, fueled in large part by the closure of gyms during the initial 2020 lockdown phase. I’ll list a few of my favorite YouTube fitness channels below for anyone who’s interested. I accidentally got into this universe while searching for retro workout videos. It didn’t take me long to remember the exhilaration of discovering a routine that spoke to me in both the music and movement arenas, and getting to repeat this routine from the comfort of my living room.
But it also didn’t take me long to remember the eventual wearing off of endorphins and the feeling of being chained to my VCR each day while participating in a daily workout routine that I’d repeated for weeks. Hence the beauty of the YouTube channel, where likable fitness experts upload new videos on a weekly (or sometimes daily) basis. It’s hard to get bored with an ever-changing landscape, where you can piece together your own routine from a few different instructors to create the perfect workout. Here are three channels worth checking out (you can find workouts from the actual 1980s near the bottom of this post):
With mantras like “Fake it till you make it” and “wrong and strong”, EMKFIT (aka Emily Thorne) instantly reassures us that working out isn’t about perfection. She’s the first fitness instructor I found on YouTube after searching for ’80s workouts, and she instantly won me over. This Jane Fonda-inspired workout is so much fun, as Emily incorporates signature ’80s moves and talks about other key aerobics features of that era.
But I was eager to check out some of her other workouts, and her non-’80s videos actually ended up being my favorites. For example, this this Dua Lipa HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout introduced me to the world of dance/cardio moves interspersed with little breaks. I was hooked. Also, if you’ve always wanted to feel confident about using dumbbells and crafting a workout that’s tailored just for you, check out EMKFIT’s Strong AF program.
What I love: Emily’s clear, easy-to-follow and fun choreography. It’s innovative, and it really complements the music. I also love her willingness to be totally honest, authentic, and relatable, like that best friend you love to go dancing with. Her sense of humor is also very motivating. Taking yourself too seriously while working out is not recommended here.
If you want to see a fitness instructor truly enjoying herself, watch growwithjo’s Bruno Mars dance party workout. Johanna’s joy is infectious, and the nighttime shooting of this video (complete with neon lighting under the couch) is one of many ways this YouTube sensation gets into the spirit of each and every video.
Jo is a great fit for beginners and those wanting lower-impact workouts, but she caters to a wide range of abilities, levels and interests. Thanks to her growwithjo app (which includes features such as meditations and recipe ideas), she’s created a strong community of women dedicated to fitness and a balanced life. In fact, many community members share how her program has completely transformed their lives, and it’s totally inspiring.
Jo’s Doja Cat vs. Lizzo dance party workout is currently in my exercise routine, and my daughter can’t get enough of her kid-friendly Encanto workout. Yep, she’s definitely my daughter’s favorite, and not just because they both have natural curls!
Maddie Lymburner’s YouTube channel is a breath of fresh air. With impeccable posture and precision, she leads an array of workouts, from those that target specific areas of the body to dance cardio routines that celebrate today’s pop music. After just a few weeks of enjoying her nightly arm workouts featuring this routine to the tune of Disclosure’s Latch (plus this 5-minute arm workout), I’m noticing some definite firming up. Not that fitness is about quick results, and none of the instructors mentioned today encourage that type of click-bait mentality.
For someone like me (who tends to think I have good form without actually checking to make sure I’m using good form), Maddie’s challenging moves have forced me to take a look at how I stand, how I extend my arms, and other important nuances that have taken my workouts to a new level. I absolutely love her choreography, and as in a dance class where there are many levels of participation, I’ve yet to get bored with these moves. For extra credit, check out the MadFit app, which includes training programs for all levels, healthy recipes and more.
*****All three fitness instructors above are thriving in a world where polished social media is dying and unfiltered honesty reigns. Women are forming fitness communities and looking for authentic leadership. I will always return to these videos for inspiration.
I also REALLY love the music I love, and sometimes it’s hard for me to work out when I’m not in my own specific musical zone. At times I’ve found it helpful to (safely) use moves I’ve learned in the videos and create my own little workouts to a customized playlist, often involving ’80s music or indie dance tracks from the last 15 years. It’s what I love. Do what works for you! I’LL BE SHARING A COLLECTION OF ’80s WORKOUT PLAYLISTS IN AN UPCOMING POST, SO STAY TUNED*****
1980s Video Workouts
I don’t want to forget about those of you who found this post because you’re looking for actual 1980s workouts. YouTube has a few good options, and you may recognize some of these from your old VHS collection.
Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship Workout
20-Minute Workout with Bess Motta
Denise Austin 30-Minute Target Toner
…and just for fun…
Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship Opening Theme
Fast-forward to the summer of 2022. My daughter is getting older, and we now make time to work out together. It’s a way of life. Today we didn’t get the chance to do a fitness video. It’s been an incredibly busy day at home, and finally I have time to try my favorite arm workout while my husband is in charge of bedtime duties. My daughter runs out into the living room, and I quickly pause the video so she’ll go back to the bathroom, where she’s supposed to brush her teeth–the last thing she does before it’s time to be tucked in.
She doesn’t want to leave the TV. My husband, reasonably exhausted after more than an hour of trying to move the bedtime process along, goes for the power button so the screen will temporarily go black, erasing any source of distraction before bed.
“This is Mommy’s time to be healthy. We’ll exercise together tomorrow,” I say. My daughter hears my voice, sees my face.
“We’re keeping it on,” she answers, leaving me to my workout, heading to the bathroom to brush her teeth in a sudden burst of compliance. I smile, start my arm curls and begin the “me time” portion of my night.
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