Americans have always had an insatiable appetite for diet and exercise programs. From gadgets and videos to shakes and meal plans, most come and go, while others refuse to die. Here are some of the most memorable fitness crazes and fad diets that have tempted consumers over the years.
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A two-time Oscar winner, Jane Fonda revolutionized the fitness world with her namesake ’80s workout videos. Fonda not only dominated the watch-and-learn video fitness craze (she sold 17 million tapes) but popularized what is now considered the go-to uniform for ’80s aerobics: leotards with leg warmers.
Richard Simmons, the self-proclaimed “clown prince” of fitness, encouraged legions of Americans to put their inhibitions aside, put their health first, and jump around with “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” Since 1974, millions have bought the tapes but can no longer work out with him in person — Simmons shut down his Beverly Hills studio in 2016, but his classic show will be heading to a new streaming channel.
In 1987, Richard Simmons created Deal-a-Meal, a diet program to accompany his wildly popular workout tapes. Unlike most fads, Deal-a-Meal was based on sound nutritional logic. It promoted not a diet but a lifestyle change based on portion control in conjunction with regular exercise.
Long before Zumba, Jazzercise enlisted legions of loyal followers to dance away the pounds. Although it was founded in 1969 by professional-dancer-turned-fitness-guru Judi Sheppard Missett and is still going strong today, Jazzercise hit its peak during the ’80s.
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Denise Austin serves as a wellness ambassador for AARP. In the ’80s, she was a global fitness guru whose workout videos saturated the market — she sold more than 24 million videos and starred in history’s longest-running TV fitness show.
Created in 1995, “8-Minute Abs” is among the most legendary at-home workout fads in history — and continues to be popular. The original workout video has racked up more than 15.4 million views on YouTube to date, and creator Jaime Brenkus has also developed 8-minute arms, legs, and buns.
In 1987, the original “Buns of Steel” hit the streets — and the world met Alaskan fitness instructor Greg Smithey. More than 1 million VHS tapes were sold and a DVD version is still available, although no longer a top seller.
Jake Steinfeld was a trainer to the stars before he jumped on the exercise home video bandwagon with the release of “Body by Jake.” While “Body by Jake” ended after three seasons, Steinfeld didn’t slow down. He founded the 24-hour fitness network FitTV in 1993 and tried his hand at acting, starring in his own sitcom, “Big Brother Jake.” He also created Major League Lacrosse, the first professional outdoor lacrosse league.
Billy Blanks brought the classic workout video into the modern era with the martial-arts- and dance-inspired workout Tae Bo. Blanks, a tae kwon do instructor, created a huge hit in the ’90s with his infomercials — and plenty of out-of-shape users got hurt trying to exercise at Blanks’ high intensity.
It’s a stretch to call Wii Fit an exercise video; it’s more like an exercise video game. Still, the 2008 release for the Nintendo Wii system gave gamers control of on-screen fitness activities, a balance board, and an excuse not to put down their controllers and hit the gym.
The exercise video craze of the 1980s and ’90s might have evolved, but it certainly didn’t die. Intense and unforgiving, P90X has taught the masses the hard truth that if you work out really hard for a full hour a day for 90 days while eating well, you’ll probably be in great shape.
Inspired by the grueling workout trend, trainer Shaun T took all the toughness of a 90-day program and squeezed it into just two months. The result, Insanity, was released in 2007. Marketed as “the hardest workout ever put on DVD,” Insanity lived up to its name with grueling workouts.
Among the most famous must-have exercise fads of all time is the spring-loaded, do-it-while-you-sit knee squeezer known as the ThighMaster. The ThighMaster was on the market for nearly 23 years before Suzanne Somers, of “Three’s Company” fame, starred in one of history’s most famous commercials. Within 18 months of the iconic ad airing in 1991, 6 million ThighMasters were sold.
What do you get when you take a basic fitness must-have and add overt (like, not-trying-to-hide-it-even-a-little) sexual innuendo? The Shake Weight, an oscillating dumbbell, which sold over 2 million — $40 million worth — in less than a year. Consumer Reports revealed it was less effective than a regular dumbbell for most exercises, though.
Beginning in 1991, Americans looking for a shortcut to better fitness snapped up the Bodyblade. The premise of the long, bow-shaped blade is that it builds muscle through vibration when shaken. Though it’s still for sale, the learning curve for the blade has kept it from becoming a standard workout tool.
Released in 1994, the Ab
Roller is one of the most successful workout gadgets in history. A double-wheel with handlebars, it challenges users’ abdominals as they push forward into a push-up position. The device has delivered more than $1 billion in sales.
The Ab Coaster is a large piece of home exercise equipment that lets users work their abdominals by pulling themselves up. The exercise is similar to hanging leg raises, but the equipment is more expensive and takes up a lot of at-home real estate.
Although it had been invented years before, America met the Bowflex in 1996, when the company began direct marketing, promising users results in 20 minutes a day, three days a week. The secret was tension rods, which gave all the benefits of free weights without the hassle. Free weights, however, are far less costly and take up less room.
A plastic sled with handles, the Abdominizer debuted in 1984 with some of history’s most classically bad infomercials. Although it almost certainly didn’t help users target the right muscles or prevent injuries as promised, it had two things going for it: the word “abs” and the suffix “izer.”
Remember an infomercial starring a guy who yelled a lot and looked like a jacked Michael Bolton? That guy was trainer Tony Little, and he really, really wanted you to buy a long-stride elliptical machine called the Gazelle Freestyle.
While you’re sitting and standing all day, gravity is squishing your entire body into a compressed ball of pain. Hanging upside-down like a vampire bat for a while every day can return a body to normal, according to commercials for the Teeter inversion table. The contraption is hawked by Roger Teeter, an old guy who jumps up and down to prove he doesn’t feel old, thanks to his bat contraption.
Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian, and Britney Spears have jumped on the sauna suit craze, which entails wrapping yourself in an astronaut-looking garbage bag pouch to dramatically increase body temperature, which allegedly induces weight loss and rapid detox. In reality, it most likely induces temporary water weight loss but not fat burning.
Twenty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a cast-iron ball with a handle on it in any respectable workout facility. Kettlebells disappeared for a while but now are as common a sight in modern American gyms as grunting men in sleeveless shirts admiring themselves in mirrors.
Hugely popular in the ’60s and ’70s but with roots dating to the 1850s, belt vibrators represent some of the earliest efforts marketers made to convince the masses that they could get in shape without any effort — even while they slept or watched TV.
Electric muscle stimulation, or EMS, has been endorsed by Heidi Klum, Elizabeth Hurley, and Madonna, although the Food and Drug Administration recognizes the use of EMS only for people with nerve damage — not those looking to lose a tummy bulge. It involves gearing up in a special electrified suit that stimulates muscles during exercise.
One of history’s most successful fitness devices was also one of its most sadistically disturbing. Marketed in the 1950s as the world’s first wearable exercise machine, the electric-shock-inducing Relax-A-Cizor was supposed to allow people to get fit while they ate, sat, or even slept. At least 400,000 were sold before the U.S. government banned the device because lawsuits revealed it had caused miscarriages, hernias, ruptured blood vessels, urinary discharge, and a whole heap of other hideous ailments.
Charles Barkley, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Hudson, Jenny McCarthy, and the Duchess of York are just a few of the celebs who have made Weight Watchers the biggest name in pay-to-play weight loss since its founding in the early ’60s. The company has received praise for its moderate approach to calorie restriction and emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
Although the meal-replacement shakes debuted in 1977, the Slim-Fast craze hit its peak in the late ’80s, when baseball legend Tommy LaSorda used the just-add-skim-milk drinks to drop 30 pounds.
Like the previous two diet crazes, Jenny Craig and its nationwide network of physical consultation centers arrived in the ’70s, got huge in the ’80s, and, unlike so many other fads, lived to see the ’90s and beyond. Part of the reason was marketing. In the 1990s, 1 out of every 10 Jenny Craig sales dollars went to advertising.
The Daily Beast called this intense exercise movement a “cult.” Wildly popular among military and law enforcement personnel, CrossFit went from zero locations to 10,000 in a little more than a decade.
In 1997, the Los Angeles Times chronicled the success of Johnny Goldberg, the founder and godfather of the wildly popular spinning movement. But it was only after Equinox bought the SoulCycle brand in 2011 that spinning pedaled its way to becoming a $240,000-a-day industry. The $2,200 Peloton stationary bike and the brand’s daily streaming video workouts (available through a subscription) further cemented indoor biking’s pull.
During World War I, Joseph Pilates rigged hospital beds with pulleys to help injured vets recover. When the influenza epidemic killed tens of millions of people, purportedly all of those who used the Pilates technique survived. Professional dancers also understood the benefits of the system’s core-focused training, although Pilates wouldn’t become a fad found in boutique gyms until the modern era.
Few health fads have come in and out of vogue more frequently than the cabbage soup diet, which originated in the ’70s. The premise is that 10 to 17 pounds can be shed in a single
week if hunger pangs are satiated with cabbage soup — and only cabbage soup.
Getting trim by eating cookies sounds great, and that’s the diet Dr. Sanford Siegal sold to the world in 1975. It calls for people to eat six special, nutrient-packed cookies per day for a total of 800 calories, plus a small dinner. The promised result is losing up to 15 pounds per week without hunger, although critics are leery of the diet’s lack of vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients.
The Scarsdale Medical Diet is based on a book written by Dr. Herman Tarnower, who is most famous for being killed by his mistress Jean Harris in 1980, at the height of the diet’s popularity. The diet’s followers adhere to a very specific (and hard to follow) ratio of 43% protein, 22.5% fat, and 34.5% carbs.
Perhaps more than any other fad, the Atkins Diet seems uniquely designed to appeal to Americans, with its lure of eating bacon all day and still losing weight. In 1999, it epitomized the low-carb craze. By 2005, the phenomenon had subsided and the company went bankrupt — but not before founder Dr. Robert C. Atkins died of congestive heart failure at 258 pounds.
The Paleolithic Diet — or simply the Paleo Diet — promises that early humans lived and died on their fitness and therefore understood nutrition better than their modern descendants. However, the fad is controversial. Critics call it dangerous and more likely to increase obesity risk than treat it.
In 1981, a book called “The Beverly Hills Diet” found a home on The New York Times’ best-seller list after selling more than a half-million copies. Written by Judy Mazel, the 42-day diet allowed only fruit for 10 days and no protein for three weeks while insisting that carbs and protein never be consumed at the same time. Dieters flocked to the fad, but doctors and nutritionists were horrified.
Created in 2003 by a cardiologist, the South Beach Diet suggested a nutrient-dense combination of good carbs, protein, and exercise for a lifetime of hea
lthy living. Eating right turned out to be a hard concept to argue with and an easy way to sell books.
With roots dating to the 1930s, the Hollywood Diet, aka Grapefruit Diet, promises that adherents can drop as much as 10 pounds in a week, which should raise some red flags. The secret is the alleged “fat-burning enzymes” in grapefruit, which must be consumed frequently while cutting out “bad” carbs, drinking tons of water, and staggering the diet with 12 days on followed by two days off.
The Zone Diet, which has gone in and out of fashion for three decades, focuses on how to fill a plate at every meal: nearly two-thirds with healthy carbs such as fruit and vegetables, one-third with a protein that’s about the size and thickness of the palm of a hand, and a little bit of healthy fat.
By pulverizing fresh fruits and vegetables to extract the juice, people get most of the vitamins and minerals, all of the sugar — and none of the fiber. Adherents swear by the rejuvenating effects of juicing, but the Mayo Clinic says it’s not healthier than simply eating fruits and veggies.
From brownies to soda, it seems everything in the supermarket now has a “gluten free” label. Avoiding gluten, a byproduct of wheat, is critical for people with celiac disease — and irresistible to many other people trying to eat healthy. But the gluten-free craze generally offers few health benefits to non-celiac sufferers and can spur a host of health issues, including weight gain.
The plant-based Macrobiotic Diet, which stems from Asia and is strikingly similar to the Okinawa diet, was huge in the 1960s. It is now making a comeback as many people have developed a taste for whole grains and sea-based vegetables and prefer to eliminate processed foods.
Although it spent most of its run relegated to pro-anorexia corners of the web, the Sleeping Beauty Diet had — and still has — enough followers to stir up media coverage and medical worry. It involves excessive sleeping, often with the aid of drugs, for as much as 18 hours a day to avoid eating and being hungry.
Human chorionic gonadotropin is a hormone women produce in early pregnancy. The HCG Diet, which was created by a British physician in 1954, called for adherents to routinely inject themselves with HCG while maintaining a starvation diet of 500 calories per day to lose weight. The FDA has since rendered all HCG diet products illegal.
The message that candy is bad and cigarettes are good was promoted by the American Tobacco Co. in 1928 with the “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” ad campaign promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes as weight-loss supplements for women. The campaign was incredibly successful until the candy industry threatened to sue.
Also known as the low-carb, high-fat or LCHF diet, the keto diet encourages dieters to eat no more than 20 grams of carbohydrates a day (the amount in one banana). However, they don’t go hungry and are encouraged to eat as much fat as they need to quell hunger pains.
Dieters have been using Dexatrim diet pills for three decades. The drug promises appetite control and an antidote to fatigue for those struggling with their weight. It also, however, has suffered repeated recalls and warnings.
Ephedra is a shrub that has been used for sinus problems for centuries. In the 1980s, however, the supplement industry reduced it to a concentrated form, in which it acts more like an amphetamine than a decongestant. Dieters gobbled it up in droves, but after ephedra-related deaths including Major League Baseball pitcher Steve Bechler in 2003, the FDA banned dietary supplements that contain ephedra.
Fasting has been around for centuries (and is a major part of several religions), but intermittent fasting really took off after Dr. Jason Fung’s book “The Obesity Code” came out in 2016. The idea is to squeeze all eating into an 8 hour or 6 hour window (fasting the rest of a 24-hour day) or, if you don’t mind going without food for a whole day, fasting one or two days a week and eating normally the other days. Studies have found IF has improved insulin levels, lowered blood pressure, and decreased appetite. But sticking with it in our late-night snacking culture is the trick.