Top Fitness Trends and Gadgets Through the Decades

Top Fitness Trends and Gadgets Through the Decades

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Early Fads

Charles Atlas: This fitness guru rose to popularity in the 1920s. His inspiration came from an unlikely place: studying the lions at the Bronx Zoo. The company he founded currently has more than 30 million students worldwide.

Electric Muscle Stimulator: We recognize these devices from commercials that say you can tone your abs by wearing a special belt and not doing a single sit-up. But the idea dates back to 1761 when scientists first proved that external electricity can activate muscles. As research continued, Soviet sport scientists in the 1960s reported 40% force gains when using devices in athlete training. In 2007, claims for EMS ab belts said they are “equivalent to 1,500 sit-ups per hour.” Recently, however, there have been $12 million in settlements from four companies due to false advertising.

Initial Workout Machines: These early fitness devices were strange (and steampunk). Vibrating “slimming” belts are a quintessential example of old-fashioned fitness. They’ve been around since the 1920s, when whole-body vibration was used as part of the training program for Russian cosmonauts. An early treadmill dating back to 1923 had large wheels and a footbed made of wooden slats. Another device from the 1930s, the Wonder Cycle Exercisulator, was supposed to simulate horseback riding and had a strange band that bound your head to the handlebars.


Sauna Suits: They became popular in the 1960s. Product claims included the following: 1 pound of weight loss for every 1 pint of sweat, a 40.4% increase in weight loss and a 20.8% increase in metabolism. But not everyone achieved such positive results. In fact, three wrestlers died in 1997 and 1998 from exercising while wearing sauna suits. The risks of using a sauna suit include dehydration, kidney failure, heat stroke and heart attack. Yet Khloe Kardashian praises her sauna suit. There are many brands of sauna suits still sold today, as well as DIY instructions that use a trash bag.

Vacuum Slacks: The product called Slim-Skins was popular in the 1970s. Notably, Rose gave them a try in an episode of  “Golden Girls.”

NordicTrack: Launched in 1975, the NordicTrack is still around today. In 2015, 40 professional dancers jogged in place on NordicTracks for 12 hours to film a “fitness flash mob.”


Jane Fonda Aerobics: In 1982, when VCRs were starting to become popular, ”Jane Fonda’s Workout” home video was made for $50,000. In total, there were 23 videos released and 17 million copies sold. Fonda made her last video in 2010 when she was 72. Her net worth now totals more than $120 million.

Bowflex: Launched in 1986, it reached its peak of popularity in 1990. Despite a hefty price tag of $1,000, the unwieldy home gym system often sat unused, making it a  “very expensive clothes hanger.” In total, there were 2.5 million sold.

Richard Simmons’ “Sweatin’ to the Oldies:” Since its launch in 1988, there have been a total of 65 fitness videos released and 20 million copies sold. Simmons helped people lose 3 million pounds over his 30-year career. His net worth is $15 million.


ThighMaster: After its launch in 1991, the ThighMaster sold 6 million products in the first 18 months. The product’s success is largely due to the campy infomercials starring Suzanne Somers that are now cult favorites. Its total sales were $100 million, and versions of the product are still available today: the ThighMaster Gold and the ButtMaster.

Ab Roller: The rolling device that facilitates crunches was launched in 1994. Lucrative commercials made these so popular that when inventor Don Brown was issued his product patent, there were already 27 product knock-offs that launched in just two years. With its quick rise to popularity, Ab Roller attained $1 billion in worldwide sales by 1996.

Pilates: In the 1980s and ‘90s, Pilates went mainstream, but it was first developed in 1912. Joseph Pilates created the fitness system while he was in an internment camp in Germany during World War I. After the inventor emigrated to the U.S., he was teaching Pilates to the NYC Ballet and George Balanchine in the 1960s. A decade later in the 1970s, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates. Today, there are still 10 million practitioners.


Pole Dance Workouts: In 2003: Carmen Electra released the first “Aerobic Striptease” DVD in her five-part series. Pole dance workout classes rapidly gained popularity and are offered in many gyms. The International Pole Dancing Fitness Association has been pushing for the sport to be in the Olympics.

Zumba: Founded in 2001, the dance-based workout saw 4,000% growth from 2007 to 2010. In 2012, it was valued at $500 million, and in total there have been 10 million DVDs sold. Weekly classes are taken by 15 million people. Celebrity fans include: Natalie Portman, Shakira, Jackie Chan, Madonna, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez.

Shake Weight: Launched in 2009, 4.5 million Shake Weights have been sold. As of 2010, revenues were $40 million. The inadvertantly suggestive nature of the product made its infomercials go viral and inspired hundreds of parodies.


Toning Shoes: In 2010, toning shows hit the market and spiked in popularity. Annual sales were $1.1 billion. Although these once-popular shoes had sales of $252 million in just four months and were heavily endorsed by celebrities, shoe companies were eventually forced to pay more than $65 million in refunds due to false advertising.

CrossFit: The brand generates $4 billion in annual revenue. With a cult following in excess of 4 million participants, this fitness regimen was started by a college-dropout-turned-millionaire, Greg Glassman, who claims that CrossFit is “creating a new super breed” of human.

Yoga: It’s a $27 billion industry, and Americans spend $5.8 billion on yoga classes, $4.6 billion on yoga clothes and $3.6 billion on yoga mats and accessories. Yoga has been around for 5,000 years, but the number of Americans practicing yoga has increased by 50% in the past four years to 36 million.

Athleisure: The yoga-pants trend started the fashion crossover of athleisure clothes — workout wear worn in other settings. In 2016, the athleisure market, including footwear, was $270 billion, and it’s cutting into jean sales.

Facial Fitness Pao: Trending for 2017, this Japanese product exercises face muscles.

The Digital Frontier

Wii Fit: Sales for the Wii Fit have been 44 million units, including both the Wii Fit (2007) and Wii Fit Plus (2009).

Fitbit: Launched in 2007, there have been 20.8 million sold to date. Revenues were $14.5 million (2011), $76.4 million (2012), $271.1 million (2013), $754 million (2014) and $1.86 billion (2015). Fitbit currently holds one-third of the wearable tech market (34.2%).

Wearable Technology: Wearable technology is now being integrated into clothing. The Lumo Run shorts and leggings track information about your steps and stride. Big-name companies like Samsung, Google, OMSignal and Under Armour are also pursuing smart clothing.

Health and Fitness Apps: In 2014, this category grew 87% faster than any other type of app. By 2016, it was a $400 million market. Top fitness apps in 2016 were: My Fitness Pal, Fitstar Personal Trainer, Sworkit, Pocket Yoga, SparkPeople and Runkeeper.



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