Baby boomers started out so strong. Back in the early seventies, most of the 76 million boomers were poster children for health and fitness, what else could explain a single generation producing Bo Derek and even Brad Pitt?
Jane Fonda starred in her first workout video in 1982 allowing people to spandex in private. “Baby boomers led an unprecedented fitness revolution, into a kind of golden era of health,” says Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., whose 1968 best-selling Aerobics put modern exercise on the map. In 1968, less than 24 percent of American adults exercised regularly; by 1984, that figure had risen to 59 percent. Cholesterol levels fell, and so did blood pressure. Deaths from heart disease plummeted 48 percent. And, in large part due to boomer mojo, the average life expectancy jumped from 69.7 years for those born in 1960 to 75.4 for those born in 1990, a huge gain.
When 1950s research from New York University showed American youths were significantly less fit than their European counterparts, the feds sprang into action, notes Ed Thomas, a fitness historian and former instructor at the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School. President Dwight Eisenhower fretted. John F. Kennedy wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated called “The Soft American.” By 1966, Lyndon Johnson had established the first Presidential Physical Fitness Awards, all in the name of national fitness.
The boomer generation took that patriotic fervor a bit further, making exercise not just fun, but also an expression of pop culture. Gidget, Moondoggie and the Beach Boys popularized surfing. Gold’s Gym opened in California in 1965, and Muscle Beach became the stomping ground for the famously buff, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger. Running became the new religion, propelled by Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic gold medal for the marathon. In 1968, America had 100,000 joggers. Just 10 years later, there were 27 million.
The 1970s gave us all-inclusive “health clubs,” where guys and gals could meet attractive gym buffs plus buy a smoothie afterwards. Fitness’s influence bled into fashion with leotards and Lycra moving from the gym to Studio 54.
Intense media interest helped all these trends spread quickly, says Len Kravitz, an exercise researcher at the University of New Mexico. “Coverage of people who were combining dance, music and exercise — like Jacki Sorensen, Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons — really fueled the public’s interest.”
And then came the real game changer: the exercise video, led by Fonda’s famous leg-warmer “feel the burn” moves. “It meant people didn’t have to go to a class or join a club,” he explains. “It really changed the fitness landscape.”
By 1987 69 percent of American adults were regular exercisers. Many boomers pursued fitness careers, becoming personal trainers. Others used their workouts for good with groundbreaking AIDS bike rides and breast cancer walks raising millions for worthy causes.
Then something strange happened-JAMA Internal Medicine recently revealed that boomers are far less fit than their parents were at the same age and are more likely to have diabetes or high blood pressure. Today just 35 percent of boomers exercise regularly; 52 percent have no routine.
What happened? Some blame the fast-food nation with its supersized portions. Kravitz points to the growth of personal technology, which encourages sitting and fiddling with small devices. “Exercise takes effort and time and energy,” he says. “In our society we can work, play, entertain and communicate — all while sitting in the same chair.”
A new study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise finds that people overestimate the amount of exercise they do by almost an hour a week, while underestimating the amount of time they spend sitting by almost two hours a week. “In 1990 the first wave of boomers were moving solidly into their 40s,” says Smith. “That’s a time in life when most people are really busy — with kids, careers, financial obligations, maybe even with aging parents.”
But all is not lost of course, As boomer specific gym programs grow by leaps and bounds, you may not wait until it’s under a doctor’s orders to start working out again.