Top 10 Inspirational Fitness FilmsBy Steve Edward
One of the reasons we go to the movies is their ability to transport us to another time or place. They're like an amusement park ride with costumes. Beyond pure escapism, they also have the power to motivate. Since films compress time, we get to see the effects of great acts without having to do them ourselves. But movies also have the power to transcend their medium and become part of our real world. For better or for worse, they've become one of the strongest educational and motivational tools we have.
Enter the sports film. Since the day we first saw Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Hollywood has been trying to upstage him. Prior to the release of Rocky in 1976, a sports-related movie was expected to be socially relevant. After the Rock went 15 rounds with the champ, then to the Oscars, it became apparent that this was no longer the case. A sports film no longer needed to be "serious." If it made you leave the theater wanting to cheer, it was a job well done and money in the bank.
This article, though, is about fitness, not sports. So let's focus on films that'll make you want to be fit. The Natural is a great sports film, but it's unlikely that any trips you make to the batting cages after seeing it are going to change your waistline significantly. These films should make you want to burn calories, sculpt your body, and chug raw eggs for breakfast. (Well, two out of three ain't bad.)
So without further ado—drumroll, please—here are our top fitness movies of all time.
- Without Limits (1998). The story of American running legend Steve Prefontaine is great on many levels, with plenty of social relevance, but it's also tough to watch without feeling like "going out for an easy 10." A biography, and hence not a definitive sports film, but you can't help feeling Pre's passion to run, and even more, to push his body to the brink of its limits.
Best training moment you might miss: The scene where he tries on some prototype shoes, goes for a run, and doesn't come back for hours.
Quote: "Is there anything worse than coming in second?"
Other films in genre: There are many films about running or runners. Here are some you may have missed:The Jericho Mile (1979), On the Edge (1985), and Personal Best (1982).
- Hoosiers (1986). This story of a small-town basketball team that overachieves (not wanting to give too much away) is often considered the best sports movie of all time. While it's not a definitive training film, it's hard to watch it and not feel like doing something. It does have the "anything is possible" message going for it. Plus it's true.
Best training moment you might miss: Jimmy Chitwood shooting around at sunset, even though he's vowed not to play.
Quote: "I'll make it."
Other films in genre: There are a ton of good hoop films. Don't miss Heart of the Game (2005), Coach Carter(2005), One on One (1977), and Soul in the Hole (1998).
- Blue Crush (2002). Though marketed as "hot chicks in bikinis" fluff, this is a hardcore sports film. It's formulaic, in a Top Gun–sorta way, but the main character is driven, conflicted, and well played by Kate Bosworth. It also gives a decent account of what it's like trying to follow the dream of living as a surfer in Hawaii.
Best training moment you might miss: Don't walk in late. The opening scene is worth the price of admission alone.
Quote: "Train Hard. Go Big." Not actually said, but written on the protagonist's mirror in lipstick.
Other films in genre: An embarrassing genre from the Hollywood perspective (Gidget, Ride the Wild Surf, Point Break). Big Wednesday (1978) is a lone gem, and it's not really about surfing. Instead, rent the documentaries Riding Giants (2004) and Endless Summer (1966).
- Goal! (2005). A young Mexican kid living illegally in L.A. gets a chance to try out with a Premier League soccer club. Simple plot, with obvious tension-building elements, moving towards huge obstacles to overcome while surmounting incalculable odds—now this is a sports movie! It also happens to be well acted, well shot, and the characters are not necessarily stereotypical. An easy film to watch that will assure you that your life could be harder and that you should make the most of it. (Two sequels were made—Goal! II and Goal! III—but unfortunately they get progressively less inspiring.)
Best training moment you might miss: Like I said, it's an obvious film, but there's a scene where he's practicing on the beach that evokes his passion for soccer, which makes a nice contrast to all the more overt face-down-in-the-muck sort of stuff
Quote: "I don't know where home is." "Yeah, ya do. It's green an' it's got a goalpost at each end."
Other films in genre: Though soccer is the most popular sport in the world, we don't have much to choose from. Notables include Bend It Like Beckham (2002), A Shot at Glory (2000), and Victory (1981).
- Enter the Dragon (1973). Before Hollywood figured out sports films, it figured out that people would watch movies if the stars were fit. The guy they learned it from was Bruce Lee. This low-budget film out of Hong Kong pretty much changed American film and created a brand-new genre, the martial arts film. Actually, when you think about how commonplace martial arts are now, it pretty much changed the world. Anyway, Bruce Lee only made a few films, and this is by far the best. If it doesn't make you desire greater fitness, nothing will.
Best training moment you might miss: It's impossible to miss any training moments in this film.
Quote: "Don't think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."
Other films in genre: Oh, about a million. Most of them are unwatchable but virtually all feature a lot of training. Pick your favorite beefcake. Here are three you probably haven't seen: Drunken Master II (1994), Iron Monkey (1993), and Billy Jack (1971). Unfortunately, there's never been a female counterpart to Bruce Lee in the U.S., but Cynthia Rothrock was a big star in Hong Kong for years. Check with Netflix® and pick the films with the best ratings.
- Pumping Iron (1977). This documentary did two things: It made bodybuilding a mainstream activity, and it made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. It's both interesting and motivating to see these guys, who were basically fitness test pilots, devoting their lives to what at the time was an esoteric pursuit with little chance of fame or reward.
Best training moment you might miss: When Arnold walks onto the stage, looking serious, and slowly breaks into a grin. This is a guy at the top of his game.
Quote: "Remember, if you are training hard, he may be training twice as hard. You just gotta keep coming back stronger."
Other films in genre: Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985). Not a real popular genre, though I guess you could add any sword-and-sorcery movie to this list. At least these guys found a way to make money after all that time in the gym.
- Breaking Away (1979). A film about how a group of working-class kids' lives change when one of them wins a bike and starts to win races. A great film that's not really about training, but has many outstanding training scenes. Paul Dooley, as Dave's father, steals the show. Not to be missed, training or no training.
Best training moment you might miss: Riding the rollers in a car wash while eating an apple. Don't try this at home!
Quote: "I know eye-tie food when I hear it! It's all them 'eenie' foods . . . zucchini . . . and linguini . . . and fettuccine. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!"
Other films in genre: American Flyers (1985). Other than that, we're still waiting for the movie about Major Taylor. Maybe rent some old Tour de France videos or, if you're completely jonesing for some velo action, tryQuicksilver (1986) or Rad (1987).
- Chariots of Fire (1981). Film about some British runners; it won the Oscar for Best Picture. A great film in many ways, but it will inspire even the most sedentary of us to run "like the wind."
Best training moment you might miss: Not training, but motivation for training, is when Abrams is sitting in the stands after losing and visualizing the race he's just lost.
Quote: "When I run, I feel God's pleasure."
Other films in genre: See Without Limits (1998).
- Rocky (1976). Yeah, sure, we all make fun of the Rock now. But it's important to remember that back before those Roman numerals, Mr. T, and Ivan Drago came along (and before the climactic scene of one movie was a bar fight), Rocky was the quintessential American hero. A few years back, it spawned The Contender, anAmerican Idol-like reality show that tried to create a real-life Rocky. Well, I knew Rocky Balboa. And that show was no Rocky. Adriaaaaaan!
Best training moment you might miss: Rocky running up the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Just kidding.)
Quote: "He doesn't know it's a damn show! He thinks it's a damn fight!"
Other films in genre: There are a lot of great boxing movies, all of which feature a lot of training. However, most of them aren't great endorsements of the sport. Three great boxing films that won't make you want to step into a ring with Apollo Creed anytime soon are Raging Bull (1980), The Harder They Fall (1956), Fat City (1972), and The Fighter (2010).
- Vision Quest (1985). A quirky film about a wrestler trying to cut weight so he can challenge a guy nobody else can beat. It had too many offbeat characters to become a mainstream hit, but no other movie conveys motivation like Vision Quest. If you think losing weight is hard, watching Louden Swain not eat and run around Spokane in a rubber suit in between trying to fight off opponents, nosebleeds, and raging teenage hormones is just the "my life doesn't seem so bad" accountability you're looking for. You're on a vision quest, man!
Best training moment you might miss: I doubt you'll miss it, but when Louden warms up for his big match, then busts through the doors to the cheering audience, it makes me want to train until I pass out. In fact, I think I'll go watch it right now.
Quote: "It's not about the 6 minutes. It's what happens in those 6 minutes."