The other day, my Fitbit tried to convince me that listening to music can make exercise feel easier and may even get me to work out harder. I couldn’t help but feel a little smug as I dismissed the notification. Because while it may be true that listening to music is a powerful motivator during a workout, I’ve found something that motivates me even more: Tony Danza.
Let me explain.
Four years ago I bought a Schwinn bike from some guy on Craigslist. It may not be as pretty as a Peloton, but it gets the job done. During the pandemic, I tried to get some cardio in a few times a week but I struggled with consistency. Turns out, shoving an old spin bike in the corner of a room next to a laser printer and a box of DVDs isn’t enough to get me to work out on a regular basis. But if there’s one thing technology is good for it’s distracting you from the actual life you’re living. So I rigged up a janky iPad holder to my bike and searched for something to watch. I knew that whatever I chose would have to distract me enough that I could forget what I was doing. It would have to be something that wouldn’t let me down.
That’s when I saw him. Tony Danza, smiling, with his arms around the rest of the Who’s the Boss? cast. His familiar face invited me to spend my workouts watching a show that originally aired when I was a kid, back in the 80s. Comfort viewing. Like a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for lunch. I settled into the blue cushioned seat of my Schwinn in the competent hands of a sitcom theme song that I still knew all the words to and took my first nostalgia-fuelled bike ride.
Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain, longing). Some see nostalgia as a harmless longing for a time in the past — others, a toxic obsession that prevents you from appreciating the present. I see nostalgia as permission to be contemplative, like looking out the window and daydreaming. Watching an episode of a show that’s been off the air for over 30 years has no real purpose other than making me happy. But combined with exercise, well, that’s a different story. One of the reasons I used to skip my workouts was because I didn’t make space for them. I’d let anything take over that time slot. But why would I skip doing something that makes me feel good? So I developed a rule that would turn out to be the key to my consistency for the next four years: I was only allowed to watch episodes of my favourite shows on the bike, not curled up on the couch.
When I finished all 196 episodes of Who’s the Boss? I moved on to some other gems: Beverly Hills, 90210, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City. Thanks to streaming, I’ll probably never run out of things to watch. That’s a good thing because I’m now addicted to the endorphins and dopamine released as I exercise, plus that extra shot of dopamine from watching nostalgia TV is a powerful enough cocktail that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to work out any other way.
If you’re too self-conscious to ride a bike with sweat dripping down your back as tears run down your face because a holiday episode of your favourite childhood show hits a little too hard, then these workouts probably aren’t for you. You also have to be tough enough to withstand merciless teasing from your friends and family when you tell them you’re in the middle of rewatching a show that they may have made fun of you for watching the first time around. But if you want to get your heart rate up a few times a week consistently year after year, a healthy dose of nostalgia might be just the thing you’re looking for. If I ever don’t feel like working out, I remind myself that it’s the only time I get to see Dylan McKay pull up in his Porsche, Lorelai Gilmore sneak food into a town meeting, or Tony Micelli fall hopelessly in love with Angela Bower.
I remember hearing once that people used to think of nostalgia as a medical condition. Something that could be treated. After consuming hundreds of television episodes over the last four years, amounting to thousands of minutes of cardiovascular exercise, I feel like I can say with some confidence that nostalgia isn’t something that needs a cure. Nostalgia is the cure. Looking back, it’s no coincidence that I started these workouts during the pandemic. There’s that line from The Matrix Resurrection: “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” If exercise is as good for my body and mind as everyone says it is, nostalgia might actually be keeping me alive.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely better workouts out there. I’m sure that I’m not burning enough calories, building enough muscle, or targeting enough of my trouble zones. My goal was never to lose weight, it was just to get my heart rate up. Consistency, not intensity. These nostalgia workouts aren’t perfect, but they happen. And for me, that’s enough.