Not to brag, but I was the roller-skating princess of Farmington Hills, Michigan, circa 1986. Which is to say that, as a 10-year-old, I could spin around the entire oval-shaped rink of the Bonaventure Skating Center on repeat without a spectacularly embarrassing face plant. Considering that I had two left dance feet and could only eke out the opening chords from the Ice Castles love theme on the piano, this feat was my chief extracurricular success story. I begged my parents to take me on Saturday afternoons so I could recapture that joyous light and free feeling, practically flying to the booming pop music.
When I close my eyes and think about Bonaventure now, I’m like the old lady in Titanic remembering what it was like to board the ship. Bonaventure was called the rink of dreams (by me, that is). The rented beige skates smelled like a blend of sweaty sock and antiseptic! There was striped-orange-and-blue carpeting! I gorged on cheap snack-bar pizza and Coke slushies! The DJ in the corner booth played a copious amount of Kool & the Gang!
I last visited my favorite rink the day after Thanksgiving in 1993 for my annual overnight camp reunion. (Never a primo socializer, I showed up primarily for the free bonus skate.) I soon moved away, then proceeded to learn how to do step-aerobics at mass-market gyms and clip-in to bikes at boutique cycle studios. I chalked up roller-skating as just another relic of my long-lost youth, right up there with my portable lilac Sharp stereo.
But a funny thing happened during the Zoom era: Roller-skating is now, well, on a roll. I live in New York City, where two massively popular retro outdoor rinks (among others) opened this past summer. You think Rockefeller Plaza is a tourist mecca during the holidays? Take away the Christmas tree and imagine the eclectic crowds that showed every day and night for Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace. Over in Central Park, Madonna commemorated the release of her new hits collection with a party at the DiscOasis at Wollman Rink.
This isn’t a musty Gen X thing, either: Teens on TikTok have been sharing their skating videos every day, reaching millions of viewers in the process. And unlike say, liquid protein diets, this throwback fad is actually good for you. “Skating is a great cardiovascular exercise because you’re working your lower extremities and your abdominals,” says New York City-based physical therapist Tara McNamara. “It’s also fun, which is what you want out of any physical activity.” Indeed, per the Roller Skating Association International, just one hour of moderate roller-skating burns 300 calories for a 143-pound person. Cruising up to 10 miles per hour can push the number to 600 calories.
The conditioning starts as soon as you take that first small (albeit unwieldy) step. “Every time you push off on the skate, you’re working your butt, your hamstrings, quads and glutes,” McNamara adds. (Fun fact: The gluteus medius near your pelvis is designed for the hip-abduction move that skating demands.) The closer you can crouch down to the ground for liftoff, “the more of a workout it is,” she adds. “It’s why you see a lot of inline Olympic skaters also using roller skates.” But even gliding across the surface is a boon to your body: “Though you’re not doing anything high-impact like jumping and running, any activity that gets you moving and your heart rate up benefits your cardiovascular system.”
Roller-skating also tips the balance scale in your favor. As you move and try to stay in control on four wheels, your midsection is prompted to stabilize and adapt to the changing stimuli. Call this one an underrated health benefit: Sure, we’re preteens at heart, but the unsettling reality is that we’re more prone to falls as we age. “Our nervous system doesn’t react as quickly, so you want to do activities that help it fire on all cylinders,” McNamara explains.
To that end, she recommends that skaters get around with helmets and wrist guards for injury prevention. (“It’s instinctive to stick your arm out when you fall.”) I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a coda from McNamara: “There’s a sense of accomplishment in being able to do something in your 40s or 50s that you could do when you were 10.” With those encouraging words in mind, I recently decided to take my first spin in years. To achieve the full-circle experience, I toted my visiting 9-year-old niece. (All I had to do was convince her that roller-skating was the No. 1 city attraction this side of the Statue of Liberty.)
I felt giddy from the moment I laced up the skates, so excited to be back in action that I wheeled circles around her in anticipation. My niece, meanwhile, was visibly terrified being on unsteady ground. I clutched her sweaty hand and guided her to the glittery rink, which resembled the inside of a disco ball. At first, she refused to let go of the side rails. The sensory overload overwhelmed her in all the wrong ways. But just one ABBA medley later, she started to become enthralled by the immersive and infectious fun. “Give me tips!” she demanded.
Start with soft knees, I suggested. Then push off from the ball of your foot. Don’t be scared to go fast. Pick yourself up if you slip. Smile. And celebrate good times. Come on!