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Exercise trends have changed tremendously over the last few decades, which is exactly why it’s so fascinating to look back at vintage photos of people working out in the gym or the comfort of their own homes. Back in the early 1900s, fitness looked more like elegant stretching, which women did wearing a dress, with full hair and makeup, of course. Sweating through a workout was not the goal back then — in fact, obvious physical exertion, for women at least, was frowned upon.
As the years went by, women ditched the dresses and opted for more comfortable clothing (paving the way for today’s leggings and sports bras), and celebrities began to embrace exercise with a gusto that inspired others as well. Step back in time by looking at photos of popular old workouts, retro “athleisure,” and all the interesting gym equipment of yesteryear. Here’s a look at what fitness once was.
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Here’s proof that cycling has been popular for a very long time: This is a photo from March 1921 featuring a woman on a stationary bike. Her outfit might look odd now, but back then, it was pretty standard for women to wear outfits of “leisure,” and heels or loafers (Adidas sneakers weren’t exactly a thing yet).
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Boxing was a huge and popular sport in America in the 1920s. This is a photo of Harry Wills training at Grupp’s Gym for a big match.
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Multi-tasking as a mom looked slightly different in the 1920s. In this photo, a mom gets some exercise with an innovative cycle pram that allows her to ride a bike and take baby for a walk at the same time. A little bulky, but it gets the job done!
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Overall, the 1920s wasn’t a huge time for exercise. There was an emphasis on stretching and using machines like this one instead of being overly athletic. This is like a Vibo-Slim, a vibrating machine that was used to “slim” the body.
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This photo from New York City in 1928 shows chorus girls from the “Lady, Be Good” show in a gym on “reducing” tables. Back then, if you wanted to lose weight, you said you wanted to “reduce” weight, or that you were on a “reduction diet.”
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While dance may not have been thought of as a workout, exactly, it was always a popular way to be active. This photo shows the Isalde and Alexis dancing group practicing outside on a sunny day in June back in 1929.
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This photo from 1930 shows women exercising in the gym area of the Victoria Transatlantic, which was a popular passenger ship at the time. As you can see, the exercise machines were very different from what we’re used to today.
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This Fitness-Parade from 1930 promotes physical education in London. It was in the 1930s that boutique fitness classes started to become popular as famous women began to make working out seem trendy.
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Taken in September 1936, this photo shows a fitness instructor teaching a class of female teachers in a “keep fit” class at Loughborough College. Note the dresses!
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Keep Fit was part of a large national fitness initiative in England. This photo shows a group of women training to become Keep Fit leaders at Milton Mount College in Crawley.
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Regular exercise was definitely more popular in the 1940s, but that didn’t mean you should look like you were exerting yourself. Stretching was still a huge exercise trend, mainly because women were advised not to look sweaty while working out. A lot of images, like this one, show women luxuriously stretching in their homes.
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This photo from 1942 shows a gymnast on rings at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The gymnastics rings were popular in the ’40s.
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Women were still wearing dresses to exercise, even in the 1940s. This image shows a woman with perfect hair and makeup, exercising on a workout machine typical of the times in a dress.
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Women weren’t interested in defining or growing their muscles through fitness in the 1940s. This image of Ziegfeld dancer and actress Susanne Remos stretching to stay slim shows the biggest fitness trend of the decade.
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In the 1950s, yoga became more popular in the US when Walt and Magana Baptiste opened a West Coast yoga studio. Yogi Indra Devi also opened a popular yoga studio in Hollywood that attracted a lot of attention, which is where this photo was taken.
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The 1950s was also a decade when women became more interested in more active forms of exercise as opposed to just stretching. This photo from 1952 features Clem Folkman’s “Health Studio” in Cleveland, Ohio, where women were taught various exercises, including ones that involved light weights.
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As exercise became more active, it makes sense that workout clothes changed too. Wearing dresses while working out started to become a thing of the past, and women began wearing more short one-piece outfits, like this romper shown here.
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Women also began wearing comfortable clothes like leggings and leotards while in fitness classes. This image shows a group of women in a class in New York taught by Bonnie Prudeen, director of the Institute of Physical Fitness in White Plains.
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The hula hoop didn’t become popular in the US until the 1960s, although it was introduced at the end of the 1950s. Here, legendary jazz pianist and big band leader Duke Ellington hula hoops with this seven-year-old daughter, Daphne Brebet.
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According to Harper’s Bazaar, the 1960s was when “sweat became sexy.” Exercise became much more popular and it became more acceptable to get sweaty during a workout.
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Boxing has a long history as a sport — it arrived in the United States back in the late 1700s. The 1960s and ’70s were thought of as a golden era of boxing in the US. In this photo, Cassius Clay (you know him better as Muhammad Ali) trains with a punching bag for the 1960 Olympics.
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In this photo, women work out in the gym at Helena Rubinstein Beauty Salon in new York City. The salon was a popular gym and beauty spa for women at the time.
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Gym classes definitely don’t look like this anymore! This photo from the early 1960s shows students at the William Ellis School at Primrose Hill in London, with the ropes and all.
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Not every aspect of the fitness world was evolving. The vibrating machines of the early 1900s came back as a trend in the 1960s. This woman uses a vibrating belt, which was believed to vibrate away the pounds.
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Dance became a popular workout in the ’70s. Paula Kelly, the first Black woman to successfully transition from movies and television to Broadway, is pictured here performing on This Is Tom Jones.
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The 1970s was the time when exercising really became more mainstream, especially for women. And it was popular in Hollywood, too: Here, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilder at the time, trains Sally Field on the rowing machine.
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Pilates has been around since the early 1900s, but in 1970, Ron Fletcher opened a studio in Los Angeles and attracted a lot of celebrities. Here, actress Joan Collins does the exercise with Kim Lee at his studio in Beverly Hills.
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Of course, the 1970s was known as the time when aerobics and jazzercise really began to take off. Annette Stewart is pictured here concentrating hard during a jazzercise aerobics class.
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Jane Fonda didn’t release her best-selling first exercise video until the early ’80s, but she started to show up in the fitness world in the late ’70s. Here, she does ballet exercises at her workout studio with talk show narrator Mike Douglas during a taping of the Mike Douglas Show.
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Spinning as a form of exercise has been around for a long time, and started becoming really popular in the 1960s. In 1965, the first at-home stationary bike was introduced, and by the time 1980 rolled around, they became extremely common. In this photo, Donna Summer is pictured on her stationary bike at home.
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