What It Would Have Been Like to Work Out in the Mad Men Era

After seven seasons and eight years, Mad Men’s finale was last night. We’ve followed along the storylines and drooled over the costumes and set, but have you stopped to consider what exercise was like back in the 50s? Muscle definition wasn’t as important back then – in fact, the stars of Mad Men stop working out leading up to and during filming – but folks still got their sweat on. In a time before ClassPass, organized exercise groups, and killer routines that kick us into shape, what did people of the 50s do to tone up?  

Weight Lifting

Remember that famous photo of Marilyn Monroe laying on her back over an exercise bench with a set of weights in her hand? Believe it or not, but that was for more than just a photo session. In fact, in 1952 she told Pageant magazine, “Each morning, after I brush my teeth, wash my face and shake off the first deep layer of sleep, I lie down on the floor beside my bed and begin my first exercise. It is a simple bust-firming routine which consists of lifting five-pound weights from a spread-eagle arm position to a point directly above my head. I do this 15 times, slowly. I repeat the exercise another 15 times from a position with my arms above my head.”

So next time you’re boot-camp instructor tells you to lift those weights, remember: Marilyn did it first. But she didn’t invent the weight-lifting technique herself. We can thank famed trainer extraordinaire Jack LaLanne for sparking the trend that turned jiggling and skinny-limed arms into toned, muscled works of art. In fact, the fitness, exercise and nutritional expert, sometimes called the “godfather of fitness”, was known to lift weights until he experienced muscle fatigue or could no longer do another rep. Before LaLanne, this burning out of the muscle groups was practically unheard of.

The Slim ‘n’ Trim
Ever heard of the 1950’s dance move, The Twist? If you thought it all came from the Chubby Checkers-inspired song that became a 1960s dance craze, you’re in for a surprise. To encourage America’s youth to up the exercise ante (a whopping 60 percent of American children failed at least one school-mandated exercise exam during that time, compared to only nine percent of Europeans!), manufacturers created the simplest machine they could imagine: a plank of fiberboard atop a swivel device that allowed users to pretty much stand on it and “twist” to music. The result? A surprisingly efficient aerobic workout that helped tone the mid-section. Don’t believe us? They’re still being sold all over Ebay! 

Vibrating Belts
Imagine if someone told you to stand still and let the machine do all the work in getting your body in the shape you desire. Pretty tempting, huh? Well back in the 50s and 60s, most folks thought of vibrating belts as the true holy grail of fitness. The machines, operated by wrapping an elastic band around a single body part, such as your thighs or arms, and then used a motor to vibrate the band. It was actually thought to loosen and break down fat while increasing muscle mass and tone. Needless to say, this machine was total B.S, but it did not stop hundreds and thousands of teeny boppers from back in the 50s from purchasing these wacky machines.

You may remember the episode when the Sterling Cooper agency tries coming up with a name and pitch for their brand-new client that was to be the weight-loss invention of the century: the Electrosizer. Dating back to the 40s and 50s, these puppies claimed to reduce the girth and size of your body parts by producing an electric shock to the muscles. Ouch, right? Pads were strapped or placed on to the body (stomach, thighs, arms, you name it!) and then attached by cords to an electric outlet. So, basically, folks just layed there and enjoyed a literal shock to the system to enhance their figures. Bet you’re feeling pretty thankful for the elliptical and treadmills of the world right about now!

Bongo Boards
Skateboarders of all ages and stages will be shocked to learn that middle-aged women were balancing long before young kids learned how to kickflip or ollie. The bongo board, also known as the balancing board, was a device hugely popular in the 1950s for its muscle-toning abilities. Appearing in the centerfold photo of the August issue of Playboy magazine, ads starting appearing all over the television and in newspapers deeming its abilities as an exercise must-have. In fact, one famous infomercial promoted it with these laugh-out-loud worthy catch-phrases: “models, or just anybody interested in keeping in shape, find that by using bongo, bingo! Everything shapes up nicely. You don’t have to be good at figures to figure that out. Yes sir, the gals are falling for bongo in a big way!”

Wooden Fat Roller
Imagine laying down on a cutting board and having someone knead you like a ball of dough. Yep, that’s pretty much the purpose of this 1950s exercise getup that was still found in gyms as late as the 1970s! The device worked on a kneading massage principle that aimed to address inner thighs, large behinds, and rolly polly bellies. People would sit, lay or hover over these machines, which worked very similarly to vibrating belts to rev up circulation and break down cellulite. All we can say is thank goodness fitness technology has come a long way!


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