- I challenged myself to do a week of workouts using only machines and equipment that would have been available in the United States during the 1950s.
- My routine included yoga, calisthenics, balance workouts, as well as a Hula-Hoop, treadmill, and a stationary bike.
- The experience taught me that some workouts that were big in the 1950s are still a great way to improve one's balance and have fun.
- However, I don't think the era's widespread emphasis on being slim rather than building strength would cut it today.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
The 1950s marked a decade when Americans became really interested in exercise and fitness.
Television programs, the government, and new social norms created an environment where staying in shape was not only encouraged, but also expected.
With the recent return of 1950s workout staples like Bongo Boards, Hula-Hoops, and other calisthenic-focused exercises, I decided to spend a week trying out moves from the decade to see how they stack up against more modern routines.
To guide me in my vintage-fitness journey and provide some insight into what types of workouts were popular in the 1950s, I spoke to Conor Heffernan, assistant professor in the departments of kinesiology and health education at The University of Texas at Austin, and personal trainer Chris DiVecchio.
Here's what it was like to follow a vintage-inspired workout routine for a week.
Day one: I warm up with some calisthenics and try a stationary bike
Many women in the 1950s sought to stay or become slender through their new exercise routines, but they were seemingly not nearly as concerned with building strength or staying healthy, something many of the weight-lifting and cardio workouts I do today emphasize.
I also found that many workouts of the time seemed pretty simple and low-energy. For example, one popular fitness tool in the 1950s was a Bongo Board, which is designed to help improve one's balance.
Although some early iterations of this balance board debuted in 1952, it is still useful today, according to DiVecchio. He said it can stabilize muscles, which can act as a foundation for strength and power and help prevent injuries.
With this in mind, I began my workout by trying to stay upright on a Bongo-style balance board, which turned out to be a lot harder than expected.
After trying to stay upright for about 30 seconds, I did 30 jumping jacks followed by 10 minutes of Hula-Hooping, an activity that has unclear origins but was especially popular in the 1950s.
I actually felt myself smiling while "hooping," and I was happy to hear that, according to DiVecchio, using this childlike piece of equipment can help shrink your waist size, burn calories, and increase your body's mobility — even if it doesn't build muscle.
Next, I decided to try and use dumbbells (which have been around for centuries) and a rowing-style machine (which have been around since the 1870s) to imitate some of the equipment that those in the 1950s would have had access to.
Although stationary bikes didn't gain mainstream popularity in the US until the 1960s, they'd been around since the early 1900s, so I decided to include some pedaling in my routine to finish off my workout.
Honestly, I didn't really feel like I got much of a workout on the stationary bike, and I was bored after just five minutes.
Day two: It's a yoga time
According to Heffernan, yoga found a resurgence of popularity in the 1950s, so I decided to dedicate a couple of days of the week to it.
During that decade, women would likely have been attempting yoga poses that were taught at community centers or salons from cosmetic pioneers, like Helena Rubinstein or Elizabeth Arden, who emphasized that yoga could help a woman take control of her physical beauty.
I'm not one to choose yoga over a high-intensity workout, but I have to admit that I enjoy the calming and relaxing benefits from the practice.
I do 30 seconds of each pose, starting with mountain, standing bow, tree, eagle, triangle, leg lifts, camel, bow, and chair, as well as a few rounds of downward-facing dog.
I feel less stressed and more energized when I'm finished.
Day three: After running on the treadmill, I finally feel like I'm getting a real workout
Treadmills really started to gain popularity in the 1960s, but some US advertisements for them date back to the 1930s, so I figure they were probably part of some 1950s routines. I decided to incorporate this machine into my day-two workout.
After warming up with the balance board and one minute of jump rope, I put on one of my favorite workout playlists and start running. I'm bored within 10 minutes, but it feels really good to get some of my extra energy out, and I'm able to stay on the treadmill for around 30 minutes.
I've finally broken a sweat, which is a relief. One of the most frustrating things for me so far this week is that I haven't really felt like I've gotten my heart rate up during any of these exercises.
Day four: I feel really relaxed after another yoga day
It feels weird having such a relaxing workout planned for the day, but part of me feels happy about it because it's been a stressful week at work, and I'm looking forward to zoning out and concentrating on my breathing for at least 20 minutes.
To start things off, I decide to try to focus on balancing on the board. For some reason, it's even harder than it was the first day, and I'm having a hard time concentrating on keeping it steady.
After about five minutes of that, I return to my yoga moves. I again move into my mountain, standing bow, downward-facing dog, tree, eagle, triangle, leg lift, camel, bow, and chair poses.
I'm surprised to admit it, but I wish my yoga session was longer so I didn't have to get back to being productive.
Day five: The stationary bike just isn't doing it for me
Although a part of me is enjoying taking the week kind of easy, I miss doing exercises that really get my heart rate up as well as strength-building moves.
To start, I crank up some music as I try to balance on the board for 45 seconds and then do 40 jumping jacks. I feel like I'm getting a lot better at balancing and I am having some fun with it.
After doing 15 minutes of Hula-Hooping, I grudgingly head over to the stationary bike and set a timer for 45 minutes. It's weird how easy it is to zone out, and even though I stay on the bike the whole time, I don't really feel like I broke a sweat.
DiVecchio echoed my thoughts, saying that stationary bikes can create a "false sense of action," adding that it's typically not a good source for burning calories. However, he said that it's a helpful workout tool for people who have back issues or knee, hip, or foot injuries.
When I'm done with my workout, I check my abs, and am surprised to see a hint of definition, but it's hard to tell if it's from Hula-Hooping or from my previous core-centric workouts.
Even though there's something about Hula-Hooping that makes me feel like a kid again (in a good way), the minimal results make me feel like it's not as effective of a workout as my regular ab exercises.
Day six: I'm happy that today is my final yoga routine
I know that plenty of people do yoga several times a week, but I'm having a hard time getting excited about putting aside 20 minutes in my day for a yoga routine.
Today, I decided to switch up my routine by adding burpees to the list. Although I'm not sure whether women in 1950s-era yoga classes would have done them, I just needed something to get my heart rate up a little.
Again, I warm up with a mountain pose, followed by tree, standing bow, downward-facing dog, eagle, and triangle poses. I then do 30 burpees until I've worked up a sweat, and then I do some leg lifts, spine twists, and camel, bow, and chair poses.
I finish off with a relaxing happy-baby pose to stretch everything out.
Day seven: I close out my week on the treadmill
I wake up feeling pretty excited to put this week behind me. I've definitely had fun with some of this 1950s-era exercise equipment, but I'm ready to start lifting weights and go back to focusing on more intense moves to help me build my strength and get my heart rate up again.
I begin by attempting one minute on my balance board followed by one minute of jump rope. Once I'm warmed up, I head to the treadmill and decide to finish the week off strong with 45 minutes of it.
I'm not full-on sprinting the whole time, and I definitely take breaks, but it feels like a good workout, and I'm covered in sweat at the end of it.
In my opinion, some of the equipment from the 1950s has definitely stood the test of time, but I wouldn't trade it for my modern routine
There were a few things that I really loved about the 1950s-inspired workouts, including the fun attitude and the way that certain moves focus on balance and stability. DiVecchio said that this is actually something that modern workouts are lacking, and that weightlifting alone, without focusing on stability and balance, can actually lead to injuries.
It also can hold people back from being as powerful as they could be.
"In order to be optimal in the strength and power, you've got to have good stabilization, so you sell yourself short with how strong and powerful you could be without it," he said.
However, I really didn't feel like I gained a lot of strength or muscle definition while doing these workouts, which makes sense since many 1950s-era exercise routines for women were focused on creating and maintaining an idealized slim figure.
I won't be following all of these moves and routines again, but I might just incorporate a balance board and Hula-Hoop into my next workout.
- I tried workout fads from the '80s and early '90s for a month, and they're actually great for beginners
- I worked out like Jennifer Lopez for a week, and I noticed results right away
- I tried working out like Jennifer Garner for a week, and it made my abs look great but I almost didn't make it
- I worked out like Beyoncé for a week, and I fell on my face, almost threw up, and have never felt more sore in my life