Health June 30, 2024

Fifty Years of Health Fads

The exercise and diet trends of the last half century

The Wood River Valley has long drawn residents and vacationers alike who value staying fit in service to their outdoor recreation habits. When folks aren’t skiing, golfing or hiking, they’re usually visiting gyms or taking classes that keep them in shape for adventuring or competing. To celebrate 50 years of Sun Valley Magazine, we stroll back in time to see how exercise trends have evolved since the 1970s.  (Yes, 1974 was 50 years ago!)

Driven by several pop culture influences, regular exercise was rising in popularity in the ‘70s.  The Olympics were viewed by millions on television, Arnold Schwarzenegger was “Pumping Iron”, and Nike was beginning to outfit the growing number of joggers and more serious marathoners.  More women got active with the appeal of group fitness classes like Jazzercize.  And don’t forget how television’s “Battle of the Sexes” between pros Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs volleyed tennis into athletic prominence.

The Wood River Trail rolled out in 1984 just as America fell in love with in-line skating. The 36-mile pathway still hosts joggers, cyclists and cross-country skiers year-round. The ‘80s also gave rise to racquetball, which hit its peak popularity. Meanwhile, an exercise that didn’t require a court was catching on at home. With music pumping to catchy routines, stars like Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda had fit fans donning Spandex, legwarmers and sweatbands for a good workout delivered by cable TV or VHS tape. Strength training found its way home with the Soloflex machine, credited with pioneering the infomercial. NordicTrack ski machines were also hitting it big. For Idaho residents, having a glider at home meant they could cross-country “ski” even in the summer.

When it comes to exercise “It’s very motivating that we live in nature,” says Connie Aronson, long-time local resident and fitness expert. Like many, she came to the Wood River Valley for the ski slopes and later developed a career as a personal trainer—likely the valley’s first back in the ‘80s.  Aronson remembers group fitness being popular–even her outdoor walking class had a great following, “People loved, and still love the communal aspect of exercise.”

In the ‘90s, a step was added to make aerobics classes more challenging, and more men got into group fitness thanks to Billy Blanks’ spirited Tae Bo classes which added martial arts moves to high intensity cardio. Actor Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster was one of the best-selling home exercise devices of the decade. Stationary bikes also became popular thanks to the innovation of indoor cycling classes now known as ‘spinning’ which remain in high gear for fitness buffs.

Aronson did personal training for 17 years in sports medicine practice and spent another 14 years teaching at the YMCA before opening her own studio. “The Core classes I started at the Y are still very popular,” Aronson says. “Kettlebells, battle ropes, TRX and yoga – there are so many trends that keep exercise interesting.”

Boot camp-style classes and circuit training grew to prominence in the early 2000s for those who liked competitive, intense workouts. And now ropes and tires are a typical station for cross fit or HIIT, High-Intensity Interval Training.  “People like the idea of a quick, efficient gym workout,” Aronson says. Which makes sense since the beautiful outdoors constantly beckons.

Aronson says the advent of technology in fitness has been a new way for people to engage with fitness using their Fitbit or Apple Watch to track improvements. High impact aerobics have taken a back seat to a more balanced mind-body workouts with the resurgence of Pilates, yoga and Tai Chi. “People just want to feel better, lower stress and keep moving.” Aronson reflects on how the area’s natural beauty supports the active life, “Even if the skies are gloomy, there’s no traffic or noise. This is beautiful mountain living and we appreciate it by being active outdoors.”

Diets through the Decades

1970s – 1980s: Fad diets were served regularly during these years, typically based on a single food item like grapefruit, cabbage soup or cottage cheese. The Sexy Pineapple diet promised more energy and sex drive if you ate the tropical fruit exclusively two days per week. The Weight Watchers program was born in the ‘70s, which has evolved at pace with nutrition science.  Convenience ruled the ‘80s with appetite suppressants and shakes like Slim-Fast.

1990s – Fat-Free: Fat became even easier to avoid in the ‘90s when food manufacturers stocked the shelves with fat-free products. Remember Snackwells? But these treats contained plenty of sugar and carbs. The fallout was a heightened sweet tooth for most Americans.

2000sHigh Protein: The Atkin’s Diet popularized high protein, low carb eating.  Debates remain about its effectiveness and long-term health implications, but Atkin’s products are still widely available.

2010s – Keto and Paleo:  Americans became familiar with the fat-burning process known as ketogenesis which was achieved by consuming only fats and proteins, no carbs. Produce ketones and you’ll burn fat, but too many ketones could harm your liver.  Paleo, meanwhile, encouraged us to eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors: fruits, veggies, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.  Products of the modern farming era like legumes, grains, and dairy along with anything highly processed are avoided.

2010s – Today  Intermittent fasting and plant-based diets have moved into the weight-loss line-up.  Fasting is credited with shaking up metabolism and decreasing inflammation.  It might also improve blood sugar regulation.  Going plant-based is thought to be more earth friendly.  It also is chock-full of fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Plant based diets are generally more a lifestyle choice which emphasizes nutrition benefits above weight-loss goals.

Crazy Diet Fads 

Vinegar Diet – drink vinegar with water before every meal.  Side effects included diarrhea and vomiting.

The Gentleman’s Diet – Add alcohol to every meal to help process calories and keep carbs low.  Side effects: gains in weight and blood pressure, loss of coordination, judgement and reflexes.

The Wine and Egg Diet – Boiled eggs and wine every night for dinner, but steak and coffee are also allowed. High protein meant hunger wasn’t typical, but it left the body starving for other nutrients.

The Tapeworm Diet – Started during the corseted Victorian era. It was thought the worm ate your excess calories when in reality you could end up with an increased appetite and craving carbs.  Not to mention nasty side effects like damage to internal organs and the nervous system.

Baby Food Diet – Eat a jar of baby food every few hours or replace a meal with two jars.  The low calorie and nutrition count will likely induce hunger which can lead to overeating.

hCG – Severe calorie cuts with shots or drops of human chorionic gonadotropin which helps women get pregnant. Typically made users feel tired, grumpy or depressed not to mention it could lead to extra fluid or blood clots.

This article appears in the Summer 2024 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.