Forget Jane Fonda, leggings and Lycra, the gym has evolved for the cool Nineties. Now the clothes are baggier, the bodies are 'cross- trained' and the technology is awesome. Eleanor Bailey on the new rules of fitness
The Royal Family, the housing market and sushi bars were all left with shattered images after the glory years a decade ago. So how is it that other symbol of Eighties' excess - the gym - has maintained its popularity when so many of its associations - Jane Fonda, bursting biceps and leg- warmers for starters - are now irredeemably naff?

The answer is that the gym has evolved. Ten years ago it was a human hamster wheel where the mindless exerciser would show up and go nowhere for half an hour with the sole aim of looking better. That has changed completely. Now the gym is a racing car, technologically advanced, sporty and with constantly changing society.

The renaissance of sport has led the way. Everybody is into it. Football is undeniably fashionable - for boys and girls, American sports such as basketball and beach volleyball (see opposite page) are cool. Exercise is now about competitive excitement as well as training, about personal achievement. To be into fitness but not interested in sport is like enjoying kissing but never having sex.

Look at Reebok. A few years ago it was mainly associated with producing pastel trainers for girlies trying to lose weight. Last year this outdated image was tossed aside in favour of a state-of-the-art, in-yer-face urban fitness extravaganza called Reebok Sports Club/NY. This huge gym and training centre offers a 45-foot rock climbing wall, downhill skiing simulator, aerial ropes course and simulators for cycling, boxing and kayaking which, together with 13,000 square feet of weight training equipment, two basketball courts and a swimming pool take up six storeys in the heart of Manhattan, and sums up what we want from the gym today.

New research conducted for Nike has found that 18 to 35-year-old women think that slimming is "Eighties and too victimish". Women are now interested in sport and so want exercise that is sport influenced. They want to be fit and have muscles. The under-18 girls - while less into fitness - have dropped gender stereotypes. Today's gyms are more androgynous. Girls and boys wear the same clothes and do the same exercises. Unthinkable 10 years ago, more women are into free weights according to London gym Espree's deputy manager Matt Davis. The gym has become more scientific and less pretentious. Trainers are more knowledgeable typically having Sports Science degrees (rather than two-day aerobics' course certificates) and clients, too, are more clued up. Alex Mackensie, fitness manager of Chelsea's trendy Harbour Club says: "The latest thing is cross training, where all the muscles are worked in a variety of different workouts across the week. People who have been exercising for some years want to get better and stronger, it's no longer enough for them to simply stay 'in shape'.

"You cross train for maximum effectiveness but also to avoid injury. These days pushing your body too far is like not knowing that cigarettes can damage your health."

Meanwhile, amid the increasing technology of the gym, is a paring down of image. After years of flashiness, today's gym goers are looking back nostalgically to the Seventies when clothes were simpler and sport was more human.

"There's a whole authenticity issue about fitness now," says Richard Benson, editor of The Face. "The Nineties is the post-designer age. The whole Eighties concept of the designer object being something special has changed now that everyone has a Ralph Lauren shirt.

"We're moving away from the beautiful aesthetic in clothes and body shape. If you look at the male models of the Eighties, Hugo Boss would always use some classic looking Greek God. Now they're using quite fey looking guys, inspired by the whole Oasis, Blur and Jarvis thing. Even the gay fitness scene, which used to be about beefcake men in vests, has shifted. Pale and interesting (but still fit) is the popular body in the gay clubs." Note: smack junkie Renton from Trainspotting, 1996's favourite anti-hero, may have been pale and ill, but his body was very lean and lightly rippled.

Partly because of the new lack of pretension, municipal gyms have become cool. There is something overly flowery about the costly exclusivity of private gyms - "a very Princess Di, 1980s, Stepford Wives image," agrees Benson, who belongs to the Michael Sobell municipal gym in downtown Finsbury Park.

At the Caledonian Road pool and baths there are people from the estates mixing sweat with Barnsbury's left-leaning middle classes. Hugh Laurie comes every Saturday, Lofty from EastEnders and the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals are also regulars. Deputy manager and gym coach Maria Lonergan explains: "We try and keep an easy-going atmosphere. A lot more women are using the weights these days. It's not a macho place."

Part of the hipness of the municipal gym is that the fashion is anti- fashion. Dress code is "whatever" - you will only look out of place if you've made an effort. For what is the point of wearing something nice when in an hour it will be a steaming heap?

Of course there are fitness clothing trends but it's all about understatement. "Wear Lycra shorts with a stripe down the side in dark colours," advises Health & Fitness editor Sharon Walker. "Long leggings are well and truly out. Wearing them either implies you've been wearing them since the Eighties or that you're scared of baring your cellulite."

While you can boost your image at the municipal gym however, you can't ever get into the latest equipment trends. This is how the pricey gyms, the Eighties status symbols - the Courtneys, the Holmes Places and the Broadgates - continue to hold their own.

At the Harbour Club, they are getting into machines that get you out of the gym altogether. New "Virtual Reality" step and cycle machines come with big screens which simulate various scenes and races, mimic real forward motion and even the wind rushes past you in an authentic way. It's a way to ensure that should people become too carried away with the need to do "real" exercise they can still do it in the gym. Espree has introduced Spinning classes - such a craze in New York that people queue for an hour to get in - where the whole group takes its instruction on an exercise bike, made funkier because the lights are turned low and you can "get into the vibe."

Exercise in the Nineties is holistic. If it isn't enjoyable you shouldn't do it. We are being encouraged to do it more effectively but less madly. Fat burns faster when exercise is less intensive but of longer duration. Knowing people want fun now, the Harbour Club also has softball and tennis. People are even sociable, staying on for a meal and drink. Alex Mackensie says: "Sport is becoming part of people's lifestyle rather than a chore."