Decades after revolutionizing the fitness world, Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons are back doing what they started: starring in exercise DVDs and teaching workout classes.
Fonda is 76 and Simmons is 64, and neither entrepreneur seems ready to slow down. Fonda, the actress who brought fitness into the home and to the masses with her famous 1982 video “Workout: Starring Jane Fonda,” has launched a series of new fitness DVDs targeting baby boomers. Her latest book, “Prime Time,” is a guide on living and aging well.
Simmons, still sporting his tight Dolfin brand shorts, can be found teaching his signature aerobics class twice a week at Slimmons, the Beverly Hills, Calif., exercise studio he founded in 1974. The self-appointed “clown prince” of fitness also travels around the country teaching hundreds of classes a year at schools and conferences.
Both Fonda and Simmons have had eating disorders; both used exercise to cope. They’ve both made up-tempo aerobics accessible to underserved groups. And the two fitness pioneers both plan to keep moving as long as possible.
Today, the living legends email one another on a regular basis and speak fondly of each other. They recently talked about everything from how the fitness landscape is changing to how they cope with aging bodies.
Q: Hello, Richard?
A: (Simmons opens the phone interview with a song. It’s 7 a.m.) Already, I’ve talked to 20 people. I start phone calls at 4 a.m. to cheer people up. The housebound, people in the hospital. People who, after decades, still can’t get over what happened 10 or 15 years ago.
Q: What’s different about people today?
A: Truthfully, everyone knows how to eat right. They know the difference between oatmeal and a jelly cream doughnut. They know how to walk. Everyone has this in their brain. When I started, we didn’t have all this knowledge. Forty years ago, I lost my weight, but only by watching what I was eating.
Q: What would you tell your 16-year-old self?
A: Stop trying to find something in food that will make you feel better. I used to have eating disorders; I’d binge and purge all the time: fried oysters, po’ boys, muffulettas, beignets, coffee and doughnuts. I tried to medicate myself with food when people made fun of me or hit me with a bat in school. I’d always turn to food. Knowing what I now know, I’d turn to me.
Q: What was your workout today?
A: Today I’ll do 45 minutes of chest and back exercises at the gym in my house. When I go to teach, that’s not my workout. It’s my show. I’m 134 pounds — I’m a teeny thing. I work out 1 1/2 hours a day and eat 1,600 calories. I can’t stray because I have to fit into these Dolfin shorts! They don’t make the material anymore. It’s flammable. So people send me their old pairs. I have 300 and wash them by hand.
Q: Wow. Are you wearing them now?
A: I actually am in all-white pants from H&M, a white zip-up hoodie and a white Gap tank top. In class, I wear outrageous and crazy outfits. Slimmons is my theater, and I get to be whoever I want. Tonight I’m going as an Egyptian pharaoh. My job is to spin a web around all these people so they don’t know they’re working out. They aren’t going to think of their MasterCard bill, their relationships. They will just come in, have fun with me and leave in a better place.
Q: How do you connect with younger people?
A: I’m 64, but I act like I’m still 12. I go to schools. At colleges, they come out in droves, they almost scare me. I think it’s just to see if I’m still alive. After I work them out — and it’s not easy — I sit them down and we have a serious talk. Are they eating? Working on their body? I can say things parents won’t say. No matter where I go, I talk to each one individually after I teach. They tell me things like, ‘I’m starving, guys like girls thinner.’ I give them concrete advice about self-image and self-worth.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake today’s fitness trainers make?
A: Most workouts are way too aggressive. Thousands of lunges wear out the body. It’s not healthy for my client — the one with the bad back, bad knees, diabetes. I’m never going to do that. I’m the only one who takes a humorous approach. Comedy — not screaming at someone — can make someone lift their legs higher. There is a way to do a pushup and a situp, and it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Everyone is putting a difficult twist to it and making you do way too much.
Q: And your method?
A: My way is the sensitive, emotional way, because that’s who I am. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t sit and cry, listening to the stories. I try to be the clown and court jester and make people laugh. At the same time, you have people in the hospital who have had gastric bypass or lap-band surgery and they still have to work out. If you don’t work out and eat healthy, you’ll look like a melted candle.
Q: What’s the best way to stay healthy?
A: For 40 years, my formula has been to love yourself, move your body and to watch portion size. But the No. 1 thing is to love and value yourself, no matter what you’ve been through. People spend thousands in therapy digging and digging in the past. When you dig and dig, you find relics. Try to forgive yourself and get back on that ride. Ride Sally Ride! (He begins to sing.) On this magic carpet ride!
Q: How did it feel to receive the Jack LaLanne Lifetime Achievement Award?
A: I may be 64, but I’m a very insecure and emotional person still looking to be loved by everyone else. (Simmons sounds like he’s choked up; he politely says goodbye.)
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Q: How do you cope with aging, when your body betrays you?
A: I say to myself, ‘Fonda, so what if you can’t do what you once did, like run and jump up and down? You can walk, which is also good for your mind and mental attitude. You can do simpler exercises, like getting up and down from a chair without using your hands. You can stay fairly flexible.’ The most important thing is to not become sedentary.
Q: How have your fitness expectations or workouts changed?
A: I am kinder to my body. I don’t try to prove anything to myself or others. I keep thinking about the need to go slower, gentler and maintain a sense of humor about it all.
Q: I get energy from:
A: Sleep is critical to me ... at least eight or nine hours a night. I start to slow down my body and my mind at least 30 minutes before I get into bed. I don’t watch any disturbing or invigorating TV at night. I also get energy from meditation practice and from eating healthy fresh food, only one cup of espresso in the morning, and not drinking too much.
Q: Advice to women who are fitter than their partner?
A: Be a good example and hope the partner gets the hint. Any partner who would attempt to sabotage my fitness regime I would leave ... wrong partner.
Q: Are you a runner?
A: I can’t do anything with impact. I have genetic osteoarthritis. My father had it and so does my brother. The bulimia didn’t help either. (Eating disorders are associated with an increased risk of fractures, research shows.)
Q: Have you ever exercised to help depression?
A: I continued to exercise, especially aerobic stuff on a bike and treadmill when I was going through a nervous breakdown following my second divorce. I figured, if I hurt, I must exist.
Q: Thoughts on yoga?
A: I love yoga. My next DVD will be sort of a yoga for seniors.
Q: How does being a fitness legend rank among all your achievements?
A: I’m very proud of what I’ve done for fitness and grateful to Richard Simmons and all the others who came first.