I tried Jane Fonda’s workout 35 years later — and I was surprised

a photo of Jane Fonda wearing a leotard
(Image credit: Getty/Paul Popper/Popperfoto / Contributor)

I have vivid memories of doing step aerobics during PE classes at high school — my over-enthusiastic teacher would shout at the class of 16-year-old girls as we all scrabbled to keep in time to the beat. I also remember struggling to walk down the stairs the next day. At college, I’d occasionally go to aerobics classes at the gym, but once I graduated, I switched to running, Pilates, and HIIT classes. My days of aerobics were over, until now.

There’s a reason why people are still looking for Jane Fonda’s iconic workouts 40 years after they were originally released — the Hollywood actress looks amazing at 85, and she credits her workouts. Fonda released a VHS named Jane Fonda’s workout in 1982, and the tape went on to become one of the most popular videos of all time, selling more than 17 million copies. 

But how does Jane Fonda’s workout compare to some of the modern workouts we flock to today? To find out more, I spent a grand total of $3 to rent Fonda’s Complete Workout VHS from Amazon Prime — a fraction of the cost of my regular reformer Pilates class or even a month’s membership to some of the best workout apps. I cleared a space in front of my TV, grabbed an exercise mat, and a set of the best ankle weights, and got to work. Read on to find out what happened.

I tried Jane Fonda’s workout — here’s what happened

Fonda’s workout doesn’t mess around — it’s an hour and 19 minutes long, divided into three different sections: arms, aerobics, and legs. You can divide the workout into arms and aerobics, or aerobics and legs, and do them on alternative days. Alternatively, you can throw yourself into the deep end and do the entire thing at one go. I opted for the latter, cleared an hour and a half between meetings, and got to work.

All you need for the workout is an exercise mat, a set of light and medium-weight dumbbells (check out the best adjustable dumbbells for working out at home here), and some ankle weights if you have them.

The language is dated, but the exercises aren’t

The first thing I noticed when warming up with Fonda was the leotards, the hair, the leg warmers, and the fact that everyone was clearly already a professional dancer with a tiny, toned physique. Fonda’s workout descriptions also made me raise my eyebrows too — when talking about the benefits of upper body workouts Fonda said a weak upper body can lead to a “less attractive scooped posture.” There was definitely a focus on working out to look better, not get stronger. 

That said, I’m not criticizing — this was clearly the diet culture of the time. SlimFast’s sales were exploding, diet foods and drinks were advertised on TV, and (quite evidently) leotards were all the rage. In her book, Fonda writes that she wanted to “break the ‘weaker sex’ mold” — she wanted women to feel liberated in their bodies, and have a space to work out when gyms weren’t all that inviting. 

Putting all this aside, the exercises themselves felt like the kind I’d find in my Pilates class. They focused on high repetitions of lighter weights, but by the end of the arm section, I could feel the workout in my biceps and shoulders. 

Dance cardio is intense

Next, we moved on to the aerobics portion of the workout class. I became overwhelmingly relieved I was dancing alone in my living room, with only my dog to witness my attempts at a 50s hand jive and heel-toe taps. There was a higher-impact option, which Fonda and one side of the room followed, and a lower-impact option for those looking for a gentler workout. The workout was fast-paced and involved endless changes of direction, but was surprisingly fun. 

Dance cardio isn’t a regular part of my workout routine — I’d much rather lace up a pair of the best running shoes and head out for a five-mile run than dance around my living room. Yet I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it — I kept losing step, crashing into the sofa, and punching the air with the wrong arm, but it got my heart pumping, and I had fun. 

I loved the excuse to dig out my ankle weights

The final section of the class worked on legs and abs, and Fonda said it was time to pop ankle weights on. I reveled at the chance to grab my ankle weights, which often sit under the bed, like a lot of my lockdown home workout equipment. The routine included various leg lifts, which soon worked into my glutes and thighs. Next up, the ab section, which included crunches, toe reaches, and twists, working into my core before we got to the cool-down stretches. 

An hour and 20 minutes later, the workout definitely got my heart rate up and worked my entire body. Fonda’s enthusiasm and the peppy atmosphere had transcended time, and while it wasn’t anywhere near as intense as a modern-day F45 class, the routine reminded me of some of the classes you’d find on workout apps like Apple Fitness Plus

I tried Jane Fonda’s workout — here's my verdict

While I won’t be investing in a leotard or leg warmers any time soon, Jane Fonda’s workout impressed me, and I might try another next time I’m looking for a fun home workout. If they’re good enough for Fonda, who says she’s still doing them at 85, they’re good enough for me. Maybe my aerobics days aren’t over after all.  

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.