Growing up, many of us may remember our moms, aunts, babysitters etc having VHS and eventually DVD's of Denise Austin! You may have even started your day working out with her. When it comes to a fitness icon, she is one of them and we loved sitting down with her last week to talk about how she came into the fitness industry, her success with her VHS, DVD and daily TV Show on ESPN - Get Fit with Denise Austin. We talk about her impact in the fitness industry and serving 2 terms of the President's Council of Physical Fitness and Sports and working alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. We also talk about her fitness focuses as well as her work with her daughter, Katie Austin!
ATHLEISURE MAG: What was the moment that you realized that you wanted to be in the fitness industry?
DENISE AUSTIN: Well, I was a gymnast since I was a little girl and got a full athletic scholarship to college and I went to the University of Arizona and and then I got my degree in exercise physiology and aerobics was just beginning. It was the early 80’s and I moved back to California where I’m from and I met Jack LaLanne, the godfather of fitness and he gave me my first start on television. I loved it so much! I was teaching aerobic classes all over LA at the time and of course at that time, we only had little rooms to teach. There weren’t any big gyms. I taught in racquet ball courts and things like that. We really enjoyed the TV part and I got my own show on KABC LA. I got married and then I moved to Washington DC and started on the Today Show. I then had my own show on ESPN and Lifetime – everything just kept going.
When I was in college, I knew that I could teach some type of fitness with music because that’s gymnastics anyhow. So I just parlayed it into a career!
AM: Wow! Thinking back to a number of us who were growing up when you were starting, we did it with our moms – you had TV shows, VHS and DVDs, you were literally everywhere! Did you consciously think to yourself that you were going to have this brand and it’s going to be something where people are going to say, “oh Denise Austin – that’s a thing?”
DA: Well, not really! I didn’t know the name brand back in the day, 35 years ago! But I loved what I was doing because I was getting letters from people telling me that I was making a difference in what I was doing in their lives. It’s such a fulfilling job and to this day, I do it because I love hearing that it changes them and it changes the way that they feel. They have said that I have saved them, their marriage and I have had people cry and thank me. To know that you are out there helping people just made me want to keep being out there and doing more! I figured out how to keep going and it was kind of a “learn as I go” and I helped create some of this stuff!
I was learning as I was going along and I’d say, “oh yes, I can do a monthly segment on the Today Show – yes I can on fitness!” Then it was like, “yes, I can do VHS.” So it just kept going and I work very hard and persistence did pay off. I’d work on weekends and make appearances. I constantly love what I do so I’m a hard worker so that helped!
AM: Well, that’s an understatement! What was the first time like when you created your first video? You knew you were on a set and its production time. What was that like?
DA: Oh it was a dream come true! I was 27 and it was my first VHS. I was able to film it at the first MTV Studios and they were just kind of starting and I used their sets and I was right here in NYC. I had top makeup people for the very first time and I was like ok – I just did it. I had my routine, but I went for it and I was who I was. It was Rock Hard Abs and Rock Aerobics, I had two VHSs out of it and they were hits at the same time that my friend, Jane Fonda was coming out with her VHS tapes. It was a vary exciting time for the industry because aerobics was just starting in the early 80s.
AM: Did you come up with the outfits yourself? As a young girl doing the workouts, the fun part was seeing the style involved. To this day, there are photoshoots that have appeared in the magazine that have taken concepts off of looks that you wore then and then bringing them into present day shoots!
DA: What I did for Rock Aerobics is that I had a unitard and I said to myself, “this is all about the abs – I’m going to do a cutout.” So I cut out my material around the belly button and I used my pair of scissors to cut out the whole around my stomach so that they could see my abs while I was doing my workout. That’s one of the biggest pictures that I had and I saved all of those items. Now my daughter has fallen into the fitness footsteps now. Thank God I saved so many leggings, high cut up the butt leotards and hot pinks and hot lime green! It’s fun because it’s now all coming back – “let’s get physical.”
AM: How do you keep your energy?
DA: You know what? I’m like this. I wake up like this! Everyone asks my kids, “does your mom wake up like this?” I’m like, “yeah if you spend the night with me, you’ll see! Good morning!”
AM: Your a morning person clearly – what’s your flow like during the day?
DA: Yes! It changes if I’m traveling but mostly I get up, I do like my cup of coffee in the morning. I squeeze in my workout on most days for 30 mintues in the morning. I try to get in my workout. I do lots of online, post, my social media, I answer all my messages, do my email and then I make appearances, give speeches. I eat lunch, I eat dinner – I never skip a meal. I just love food and I eat well. 80% of the time, I eat well and have my treats 20% of the time. Evening time, I'm ready to have my glass of red wine - that is my treat and I enjoy that. I have lots of girlfriends, a great husband, 2 daughters and a huge family. Family means a lot to me and so do my girlfriends. So I do many things with friends!
AM: It’s so important to be balanced!
DA: Yes, I eat most everything just all in small bites as it’s all about moderation.
AM: You served 2 terms on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, can you tell us about the council, how you came to joining it and what were your roles and responsibilities by being apart of it?
DA: It was years ago when President Bush appointed me and Arnold Schwarzenegger was the chairman of it. The appointment was made by President Bush 41, God rest his soul as he was the sweetest man in the world and very fit. I was under Arnold as our chairman and we went to schools all over the nation. It was a volunteer job and we were trying to get kids into physical education at the schools which was really hard and we did appearances and Arnold paid out of his own money in every state we went to. I would lead aerobics to young kids and it was the beginnings of this grass roots for the President’s Council. It was a really fun time because we were trying to get fitness out there during the 90’s so it was a very important time you know. We were trying to change people’s eating habits. We were trying to get rid of some of the sugars in people’s cereals. So we lobbied on The Hill in front of Congress and pleaded with them to make changes for the school to get kids moving more and to get physical education back into the schools. We worked hard!
AM: That council was so huge. I graduated in 1997 from High School and starting in my Sophomore year, in addition to the traditional gym classes, you could have aerobics as an entire class. We also had potato and salad bars at our school. Our school system was seen as progressive and a lot of times, we talked about the fact that because of the council, it allowed our school system to understand that this was so important. I appreciate the efforts that you guys did to make this happen!
DA: Your school system was progressive and it was a lot of work, but I’m glad you had that opportunity available to you! We also made recommendations and guidelines with top doctors which was years of work and I learned so much to be around the brilliant minds of medical, health and wellness. I learned a lot which helped me to grow to teach other people especially women and to this day, I still get on the phone and talk to these top doctors all over the country! I use them as great resources to this day. It was a wonderful time and good networking.
AM: Amazing and you also helped launched the Food Pyramid System as well! How was that and what was it like as this is huge!
DA: I sure did! Well, they worked with nutritionists all over the country to come up with this pyramid guide making sure that the sugars were low and that the whole grains and fruits and vegetables that were at the bottom, took up a lot of our plate. They asked me to be the one to kick it off at The Department of Agriculture in Washington DC in this whole glorious building and it was a huge honor!
AM: It’s amazing to hear so many things that you have done and been apart of that you didn’t even think about, but that is the cornerstone of what we know today. How are you so humble about that?
DA: I almost forget that I did it! I’m moving ahead so much that I don’t really think about it!
AM: When you think about how you, Jack LaLanne and Jane Fonda laid the ground work for what fitness videos are, various programs etc. They were the precursor to today’s studio and boutique fitness locations.
DA: Oh I just love what I do! I keep going and I just feel that I do look ahead and my focus now is looking at women that are over 40. I have a Stop the Clock Guide – which is a nutrition and fitness guide for women because this age group has women that aren’t really seen anymore. I truly believe that those in this group - we want to be healthy, we want to be attractive, we want to look good and we want to do everything. That’s why I’m here and I want to tell them, yes we can. I have the best exercises to do away with belly fat after menopause. I know how to firm up your arms so that we look good when we wave goodbye. Muscles work wonders on your metabolism and I know through research that it does work. I believe in it so much because fitness is the best preventative medicine that there is. I preach it and I want my women over 40 to hear me, to learn and to not give up! They need to have a positive attitude about it as many women get clogged down with stress in this age in our life but there is so much to look forward to because we live longer now and we want to feel better.
AM: When you look at ages from 40-50 etc the way you work out when you are in those ages is different then when you’re in your 20’s and 30’s – what are the focuses in these age groups?
DA: Well in your 40’s, I still think that women need a lot of cardio to burn the fat. In the 50’s I focus mainly on target toning exercises because that’s when you start to have your metabolism drop during this age. One of the reasons is because you lack good muscle tone. The more muscle cells in your body, they’re active at rest. So the second you start losing muscle tone, that’s when you gain weight and that’s why the correlation between this in your 50’s is so important. I want to save women right away before it gets away from them. That’s why they need to focus on muscle condition which is what the guide is all about. Then in your 60’s, I hit this age group which is why I do more toning of course, but then I also turned it into stability exercises more core, strength training, stretching and balance.