We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.


When you click on a retailer link on our site, we may earn affiliate commission to help fund our not-for-profit mission.Find out more.

30 Dec 2020

Six of the weirdest fitness fads of the past four decades

We look at the strangest things people have done to get fit in recent times, from the funny to the downright dangerous - and one or two that even work
Woman doing yoga with her dog

From Thighmasters to Sauna Suits, over the years we've seen some inventive and bizarre exercise trends being sold to those on a quest for a honed physique.

There are plenty of tried and tested ways to stay in shape, whether that's signing up to the gym, going for a run or picking up a tennis racquet. But some fitness journeys take an odd turn.

Of course, anything that helps boost your overall health and fitness is a good thing, and mixing up your routine can help you stay motivated. Indeed, earlier this year we reported on some of the unusual ways Which? staff stay fit from home.

But some of the fads we've uncovered are downright bonkers - you'd be far better off using the expert tips and recommendations from owners in our exercise equipment buying guide. They will help you secure a great piece of kit that will keep you on the straight and narrow.

Click on the links below to check out our exercise brand satisfaction scores, plus buying tips for:

But we couldn't leave it there without sharing some of our most intriguing findings with you, so below we've rounded up some of biggest and strangest fads from the past and present, and turned a sceptical eye on the claims behind them.

1. The step

Plastic block

The meteoric rise of home workout videos in the 1980s, led by Jane Fonda (among others), spurred on the popularity of step aerobics. The trend saw millions of people spending good money on small plastic blocks to step on and off of repeatedly.

We envy the manufacturers and marketers who managed to make a fortune off the back of what was, essentially, little more than a plastic rectangle. But, to their credit, a large body of research undertaken in response to the fad found that step aerobics was actually a valuable form of exercise, especially for people with leg joint problems.

The New York Times reported on a San Diego State University study from 1989, saying: 'A 40-minute step workout is equivalent to running at seven miles an hour, in terms of steady oxygen uptake and calorie burn, but in terms of stress on the body, it's the same as walking at three miles an hour.'

Although our initial impressions were sceptical, we find ourselves wondering whether or not to buy a step ourselves (believe it or not, they're still available, although video cassette workouts have been updated to YouTube).

2. The Thighmaster

So-called 'fusion' classes were the rage in the 1990s - an environment that saw the invention of the Thighmaster, a 'spot reduction' tool that promised to reduce fat in your inner thighs by working those specific muscles in isolation.

The Thighmaster is basically two asymmetrical loops connected by a stiff hinge. Just pop it between your knees and squeeze. Sadly, its impact won't - and never did - amount to very much at all.

Alhough a Thighmaster user's legs will undoubtedly get better at squeezing, the physical transformation promised would never materialise because spot reduction of fat is a fitness myth (in practice, fat loss through exercise requires sustained cardio effort).

We reckon most Thighmasters will have been quickly relegated to a dusty corner of the loft or a car boot sale.

3. Dog yoga

Bringing your furry friend with you to a yoga class became all the rage in the 2010s, although the trend actually started in 2003 with the publication of the book 'Doga: Yoga for You and Your Dog'.

If you're keen to learn the downward dog with your dog, then other supposed benefits include the development of your bond with your best friend, and moral support in the form of tail wags and soulful looks.

We love this concept, but not every dog will enhance your yoga routine merely by their presence (and some may prove more hindrance than help), so your mileage may vary.

Looking to start a new yoga regime, with or without your canine companion? Take a look at our yoga mat and accessories buying guide.

4. The Shake Weight

Woman using the Shake Weight

The Shake Weight is a dumbbell that oscillates in your hand due to springs attached to the weights. You grab it and jiggle it, and by an oxymoronic process dubbed 'dynamic inertia', it alleges to work your upper body more efficiently than a standard dumbbell.

It debuted in 2009, which was the perfect period of time for it go viral on the internet due to its innuendo-laden appearance when in use. Sadly, though, it's nearly unfathomably useless.

There's no evidence to suggest that Shake Weights are any more effective than normal dumbbells, which will provide resistance through a full range of motion. No need to shake.

5. The Waist Trainer

The Waist Trainer is a corset made of thick fabric and metal which purports to improve your figure if worn every waking moment of your life. While corsets may seem like a torture device from the 19th century, alarmingly it's a trend that persists - and we think it's one that has the potential to be downright dangerous.

It's safe to say that crushing your organs in a metal garter all day is not a particularly healthy way to get fit, and unless you want to displace your liver to somewhere in your chest, a more conventional fitness regime would serve you better and make you less miserable.

Corsetry is, of course, a very old practice, but it's reemerging as a fitness fad in an era of predatory fitness cons. Just in case you needed any more persuasion, corsets are terrible for your lower back and your pectoral muscles, and they don't help you to do useful things such as run, stretch and eat more healthily. This is definitely one to avoid.

6. Sauna Suits

A Sauna Suit

Imagine how hot you get in a sauna, sitting still and wearing nothing but (at most) a swimsuit. Now imagine that same sweltering experience when you're working out and you're probably close to how it feels to wear a Sauna Suit.

The Sauna Suit is a tracksuit that you can wear while exercising or when going about your daily errands. It alleges to promote weight loss by causing you to sweat profusely.

In practice, wearing a Sauna Suit means dehydrating yourself while trapping the inevitable pungent odours into a tracksuit that looks like it's made out of bin bags. If it doesn't make you delirious, it will make you unpopular, and although getting a sweat on does promote weight loss, it's infinitely preferable to let your body regulate its temperature naturally.

We'd advise sticking to relaxing in the sauna at your nearest spa or gym, rather than wearing one.

A fitness tracker might be a better way to get motivated to up your activity; take a look at our pick of the best fitness trackers

The best way to improve your fitness

Woman using a fitness app

It's fair to say we've erred on the side of the tongue in cheek in this article. But being healthy has never been more important than it is right now, and may be even more at the top of your mind than usual following Christmas indulgence.

Committing to a regular fitness regime is important, but can be challenging, and the journey to finding the right routine for you is rarely linear.

Tried and trusted methods work, but they can take a while and can sometimes make us feel worse before we feel better. So there's no harm in trying new things if they help motivate you (and aren't actively dangerous for your health), but this shouldn't be at the expense of putting the hard work in.

In reality, there's an abundance of tools, exercises and resources we can use to get fit in holistic and safe ways - whether that's buying an exercise bike, using bags of rice as weights, downloading a fitness app or simply making a daily walk in the fresh air your New Year's resolution.

Take a look at our home gym advice guide for tips on getting started with an exercise regime, plus a range of inexpensive fitness kit that won't take up too much space.