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8 Minute Abs, Atkins, and CrossFit: The Checkered History of Weight Loss and Fitness Fads

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

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The options for getting healthy and fit are endless these days. Not into macrobiotics? Try eating like a caveman. Sitting out the oil pulling trend? Get your wellness kick with a green juice instead. There's a lot to take in, but today's trends aren't that much weirder than the fads of the past decades. After all, people were jiggling their butt fat away via a vibrating belt in the '60s, and a decade ago, one intrepid trainer convinced everyone that eight minutes of sit-ups could cure anything. Looking back through the years of fitness and diet hype, eating charcoal doesn't sound so strange.

Fitness:

Then: The Thighmaster
This suspicious-looking piece of exercise equipment was developed and marketed by the same guy who came up with the Mood Ring, but that didn't seem to deter anyone. Once Suzanne Somers got on TV screens to promote it, over six million Thighmaster units sold were sold in 18 months. By the time this cultural phenomenon finished its nationwide sweep in the early '90s, the Thighmaster had collected over $100 million in sales.

Now: Spinning
SoulCycle may have single-handly spawned an indoor-cycling renaissance, but the workout was first popularized in the mid-nineties when two entrepreneurs founded (and trademarked) this new craze. (Now, they spend about $1 million every year going after unauthorized uses of the word "spinning.") Now, SoulCycle pulls in over $200,000 in revenue every single day, and clients are so loyal that some instructors have started pre-approving their front rows.

Then: The 8 Minute Series
It still sounds great, right? In 1995, the video that started it all promised six-pack abs in just eight minutes, and then backed multiple spin-offs for buns, arms, and legs. Of course, the promise of eight-minute anything begs the question: did it actually work? Many a forum poster lost sleep over that one.

Now: CrossFit
It's technically been around for over a decade, but the CrossFit empire exponentially expanded across the U.S. over the past few of years. Today, there are over 10,000 affiliated gyms that all thrive on the same method: short, intense intervals where participants max themselves out to bulk up quickly. Like SoulCycle, CrossFit has a dedicated community that it touts as one of the many benefits to becoming an enthusiast. However, the company has come under fire frequently from critics who say that the extreme methods are dangerous and likely to result in injury.

Then: Belt Vibrating Machines
These are possibly the greatest fitness fad to come out of the '60s. The machine promised to literally jiggle away unwanted fat in any part of the body if used for just 15 minutes a day, although it was most commonly advertised for reducing butt size. One company even advertised that users could jiggle away fat while napping.

Now: Sauna Suits
The sauna suit is described by some as "cooking in your own juices," but Britney Spears and these Bravolebrities each gave it a go recently and came out alive. The suit is an elevated, more expensive solution to wearing a big plastic bag while working out in order to sweat more. Does it do anything? If you want to lose water weight, maybe, but it's not a shortcut to fat loss. If you vibrate various body parts while wearing a sauna suit... Nah, don't do that.

Diets:

Then: The Atkins Diet
Dr. Robert Atkins promised what every non-committed dieter loves to hear: you don't have to cut back on calories in order to lose weight. Successful? Short-term, perhaps, but not in the long run. Controversial? Yes—so much so that when Dr. Atkins died and his medical report was mistakenly made public, some claimed that he died of his own diet plan. The doctor did gain some posthumous recognition, though, when the controversy died down and nationwide chain restaurants like Subway and T.G.I. Friday's promoted Atkins Diet items on their menus.

Now: The Cave Man / Paleo Diet
The rules for this hybrid allow you to only eat what was available to our ancestors of the paleolithic era, which means cutting out all dairy, grains, and any kind of processed or industry-fed meats. Ironically, it costs a fortune to maintain a true caveman diet, and the whole movement has been criticized up and down for promising speculative health benefits and encouraging behavior that could lead to eating disorders.

Then: The South Beach Diet
Named after the part of Miami where all the spring breakers go, the South Beach Diet made a splash in 2003 when cardiologist Arthur Agatston published The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss. The diet works in three phases to acclimate dieters to the lifelong low-carb eating plan, and it had its share of early adopters—Bill Clinton was reported to have lost 35 pounds on the regimen in 2004. In 2010, a study out of the University of Copenhagen suggested that the South Beach Diet was actually the most effective commercial weight-loss plan when compared to other blockbuster diet fads like Atkins and Weight Watchers.

Now: Weight Watchers
Speaking of, Weight Watchers has surprisingly been able to keep up with the times, having reinvented its marketing approach since the original launch in the early '60s. Founder Jean Nidetch started the company as a support group while she was trying to lose weight herself, then sold it to H.J. Heinz Co. in 1978 when it was worth $71 million. Celebrity endorsements have been crucial for the brand; everyone from Jenny McCarthy to Jessica Simpson to Jennifer Hudson has peddled the Weight Watcher way. Lately, though, Weight Watches has been struggling to keep up with new technology like FitBits, leading to a new approach of touting personal coaches and dropping celebrity shills in an effort to prove (and capitalize on) a human element to the experience.

Then: Slim-Fast
What started out as a line of diet shake products in the late '70s turned into a full-fledged commercial diet phenomenon when Unilever acquired the brand in the '90s. Slim-Fast thrived on a meal replacement plan that switched out breakfast and lunch for chocolate-y looking shakes and bars, then instructed followers to create their own 500-calorie meal for dinner. The company's trail of controversy is a little more benign: Whoopi Goldberg championed the shakes and bars in the early aughts but was dropped after weathering some negative press following a bad George W. Bush joke. The company also issued a product recall in 2009 on canned beverages for a possible bacterial contamination.

Now: Juicing
The idea is pretty simple: stop eating food and go on a cleanse for a couple of days to detox and rid the body of unwanted toxins. But, predictably, controversy has followed the fad's success. Most recently, juice companies have come under fire for selling not-so-fresh juices in an effort to prolong shelf life, and wellness overlord Gwyneth Paltrow has publicly voiced her hatred of the practice. A aphorism recited by many companies out there is that a three, five, or seven day cleanse will rid your body of all the toxins lurking inside. But, as a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University explains, "The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak."