Icons & Innovators
His trademark style is humor, but he's very serious about his message of fitness and weight management. For 30 years, no one in the industry has been more successful at reaching the mass market audience than Richard Simmons.
He vows he will still teach fitness classes “at the Pearly Gates,” and it’s not hard to picture Richard Simmons convincing a few angels to do a little cardio. Whether he is joking onscreen with David Letterman or Ellen DeGeneres, appearing on the Today Show or speaking to fans on his 3-hour Sunday talk show on Sirius satellite radio, Simmons’ entertaining powers of charm and persuasion are evident. And so is his single-minded determination to get people to take their health seriously.
When Simmons started his first fitness program in Los Angeles in 1974, his goal was to welcome people who might not feel comfortable in gyms and exercise classes, from the overweight and obese to seniors and the physically challenged. Today at SLIMMONS, his studio in Beverly Hills, California he still teaches classes—often to as many as 300 people—that reach out to everyone from the young and lean to the very obese, people over 80 and exercisers in chairs.
“Today I read letters on my radio show from so many people who are sad and depressed about the shape they’re in. This is such a large part of our country. People who don’t feel like they ‘belong’ in fitness clubs and classes have always been my niche, but it has surprised me that more people in the industry haven’t reached out to this group.”
Simmons believes we need more fitness professionals and programs for the unfit and the overweight. “I take fitness classes around the country—not dressed like ‘Richard Simmons,’ so I’m not easily recognized. I can see that sometimes there isn’t that connection you need between the instructor and the insecure students. Teaching the unfit is a whole different ball game. The pace is different; the intensity is different; the classes need to be more nurturing, with more affirmations for people who are very unsure of their abilities or their body image.”
Simmons encourages fitness professionals to reach out to schools, churches, community and senior centers with grass-roots efforts that educate in softer, simpler, more understanding and less intimidating language.
Recently, Simmons has devoted himself to promoting legislation for physical education in schools. He has gone to Capitol Hill, taken the message to TV and radio audiences, gotten 200,000 people to write to their congressional representatives and surveyed more than 70,000 people on the activity problem in schools.
“Kids need to get physical activity, and the majority of kids don’t want sports. They want to be active and have fun,” he says. “My voice will not be quieted, because this has to be a priority. If the president or legislators don’t have time to talk about it, someone better have the time soon. Our healthcare costs are going through the roof. Our kids are suffering. Our college kids are out of shape, too. This isn’t something we can keep putting off.”
Simmons’ success is clearly fueled by his genuine empathy for others, based on his own struggle with weight and self-confidence. “People are surprised to find out that I’m fairly quiet and shy and live a pretty reclusive life when I’m not traveling or making appearances,” he says. “I’m not the sort of person who’s a good socializer in a room with five or six people. Even in the fitness industry, I’ve always felt a little like a black sheep who didn’t quite look the way a fitness professional is supposed to look. So I know what it’s like to feel different and uncomfortable.”
Movement and music can make that discomfort disappear, Simmons believes, recalling a recent experience when he taught a class of children with autism. “At first they were quiet and awkward, but then I turned on the music and they started to move like they were choreographed. Of course, they saw the sparkles on my clothes and they’d seen my DVDs, so they thought I was a cartoon character come to life!”
Simmons plans to keep teaching classes that reach out to all ages, all shapes and all sizes. “Fitness is not my career; it’s my blood, my lungs, every corpuscle in my body,” he says. “This isn’t a job for me. It’s what I believe God put me here to do. I want to be known for getting as many people as I can to fall in love with exercise and to be good to their bodies and their minds.”
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.