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Women’s group fitness classes provide something essential, even during the pandemic

Group fitness has long mirrored our needs and desires

A yoga class hosted by the Kansas City Zoo American Association of Zookeepers on May 5 at Loose Park in Kansas City, Mo. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

The coronavirus pandemic has made it abundantly clear: Group fitness plays a profound role in many Americans’ lives. When gyms and studios suddenly closed last year, fitness devotees mourned the sudden disappearance of in-person exercise classes. For many, the loss of group fitness — from dance and spin to barre and boot camp classes — felt like the dissolution of a vital source of social and emotional support.

This was especially true for women, who make up the majority of group fitness participants and have repeatedly told me: Women who move together experience life together.

In fact, this has always been the case. Since the birth of contemporary group fitness 60 years ago, women’s exercise classes have always been about more than bending and stretching. In each era, group fitness has both reflected women’s evolving place in society and served as a mirror for women’s most urgent needs and deepest desires.

Before the late 1960s, the few group exercise classes that existed for women were primarily the domain of wealthy socialites who wanted to correct their so-called figure faults. Think gentle posture and stretching and yoga classes taught at spas and health retreats.

But this began to change in 1968, when former Air Force physician Kenneth Cooper published research into the benefits of vigorous exercise for men and women in his best-selling book “Aerobics.” The following year, two women — one living on a military base in Puerto Rico, the other living in Chicago — independently came up with the idea to teach dance-based fitness to non-dancers. Jacki Sorensen’s “Aerobic Dancing” and Judi Sheppard Missett’s “Jazzercise” classes were an instant hit, drawing thousands of mostly middle- and upper-class White baby boomers across the country in the following decades.

Aerobic dance offered many women their first taste of physical strength and competence. But these classes did something even more: They provided an opportunity to step outside the home and care for themselves at a time when women’s roles still largely revolved around caring for others — husbands, children and bosses. They offered women a space free from both the gaze and demands of men, where many felt free to move in a completely uninhibited way. The rise of these classes coincided with the flourishing of the women’s movement, and its spirit fueled the popularity of group fitness.

Aerobics didn’t pitch itself as a feminist act — few of the women who showed up to dance were active in the movement — but it nonetheless contributed to women’s simmering desire for self-determination. As Missett recounted, women in her classes during the 1970s were “not necessarily changing the world, but they were changing their world.”

In the 1980s, women began to forge careers in record numbers, yet most found that, despite the new doors opened by the feminist movement, they faced flagrant gender-based discrimination in the workplace, from lower pay to fewer promotions. They also still handled most of the child-rearing and household management. Women were now expected to do it all and have it all. And group fitness began to shift accordingly, offering them tools to build the strength one presumably needed for attempting this Superwoman-level feat.

Fitness instructors gradually incorporated hand weights into classes and, following the lead of global fitness icon Jane Fonda, told women to “go for the burn.” Classes promised them bodies of steel, devoid of the softness that had long defined womanhood. This shift undeniably reinforced the toxic idea that a woman’s body should be her central project in life, but it also offered women the prospect of being able to project physical strength on the job. A muscled body gave women confidence to defy the idea that they were the “weaker sex” and deserved less than their male counterparts.

Amid the Reagan-era capitalist mentality of every man and woman for themselves, a woman armed with shoulder pads, a tie and a hard body had an unfortunate but valuable advantage in the boardroom.

During the 1990s, the high-impact bouncing and pounding of aerobics began to burn out, but another type of group class became a hit: yoga. Women felt beleaguered and exhausted during a decade that relished in publicly shaming and abusing women — from Hillary Clinton to Monica Lewinsky in the White House to Anita Hill on Capitol Hill to Tonya Harding in the rink to those conniving beauties on TV series like “Melrose Place.” Women may have wielded more social power than ever before, but their growing parity came at a cost, as they still “operated within power structures — entertainment, business, academia, sports — that older men controlled,” as historian Anne M. Blaschke has observed. This reality forced many women to navigate indignities and worse in their pursuit of full and meaningful lives. And yoga was a salve, promising women both soul-deep rejuvenation and the lithe, limber body to which they were expected to strive.

Beginning in the early 2000s, as millennial women came of age and sought to optimize every activity in which they participated for maximum “results,” major national fitness chains answered the call with high-intensity classes ranging from barre workouts and spinning to boxing and rowing. Certainly the ethos of many popular studios fostered competition — with oneself and others — more than camaraderie. But these hard-driving workouts also allowed many devotees to feel productive, proud and successful in at least one realm of their lives, amid dwindling job opportunities and skyrocketing student debt. As home-buying felt increasingly out of reach and social lives rapidly moved online, adding a few more reps to your workout and analyzing your heart rate, output and spot in the class hierarchy was something definite — something to control.

Now, in 2021, group fitness has started to shift again — reflecting the unimaginable social isolation and stress women feel as they bear a disproportionate burden of child-care and emotionally draining pandemic demands. Many women feel desperate for support — help they are not receiving from social institutions, workplaces or even partners.

Against this backdrop, a new vanguard of fitness trail blazers devoted to inclusivity is promising classes that help women feel good — just as they are. It has become standard fare for fitness instructors to encourage emotional as well as physical perseverance. At the popular chain Pure Barre, students are regularly cheered on with the mantra, “You’re stronger than you think you are.” And it’s no surprise that, during the coronavirus pandemic, the at-home fitness giant Peloton exploded, rising to take the place of in-person classes for many converts: With its intense focus on community and empowerment, it has savvily become just what many thousands of women needed.

In her book “The Joy of Movement,” Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes that, when we move in sync with other people, we experience a kind of collective joy. “Your understanding of the part of the world that belongs to you expands,” she continues. “This feeling can translate into both self-confidence and social ease. You can walk away from a … group exercise class with an expanded sense of belonging and an embodied knowing that you have the right to take up space in the world.”

Understanding the history of exercise classes presents the fitness industry with an opportunity to learn from the past and harness the positive aspects of group fitness to offer what so many women really need — camaraderie, community, a joyful outlet and a path to strength — as well as to think creatively about how to make group fitness more inclusive of and accessible to all women who need it. We may just benefit from it more than any generation before us.