The Obama's Secret to Staying Fit: Personal Trainer Cornell McClellan

The first family appears to be very fit. The president is known for his trim physique, and the first lady's famously toned arms are the envy of women across the country. But how do they balance their fast-paced lives in politics and stay in shape? Their secret weapon is physical trainer Cornell McClellan. Host Michel Martin speaks with McClellan to find out how he motivates the president's family and the White House staff to stay active.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now that it's almost swimsuit season, in much of the country, anyway, you might be thinking more about getting toned. We are going to have a couple of conversations about how the president and the first lady stay fit and what they are doing to encourage the rest of the country to do the same, including enlisting the help of singer Beyonce, who has cut a new video for the cause.

But, first, as many of us return to the gym, or sneak back into the gym, some of you are wondering how First Lady Michelle Obama maintains those famously toned arms. Her secret weapon: Cornell McClellan. Serving on the president's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, he works with professional athletes like star NFL quarterback Drew Brees. And he works to help the government develop accessible and affordable fitness and nutrition programs for Americans.

He also has another critically important responsibility. He's the personal trainer for the president himself and the first lady. The first family, as many of us know, has made a big commitment to promoting physical fitness and leading by example. So we decided to call Mr. McClellan to find out how he motivates the president's family and the White House staff to stay in shape. And he's with us now. Cornell McClellan, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. CORNELL MCCLELLAN (Personal Trainer, Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition to President Barack Obama): Well, thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, how did you get bitten by the fitness bug?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, I guess unlike kids of today, being in my middle 50s, we were always outside. So I guess I knew nothing else but to be fit and to be active, so always very active. I started martial arts as a very young man, about six or seven years old and played a lot of football, ran track in high school, played ball and things of that nature. So I've always - it's just been part of my life to be involved.

When I was in college, one of the ways that I helped to pay my tuition was to teach martial arts. And so it has just always been part of who I am, kind of like a second nature.

MARTIN: How did you become acquainted with the first family?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I own a gym in the West Loop of Chicago called Naturally Fit and I've been there for over 16 years. And first the first lady, Michelle Obama, she was recommended to come there about 14 years ago.

MARTIN: So you've known them for a long time.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Known them for a long time. And she began coming there first and I think she was there for about two or three years before the president actually started coming himself. And one of the things that I noticed from them and from herself initially is that this was something that was important and that she prioritized and found a way to fit it in.

You know, one of the things that I think happens for most of us is that we feel that we don't have enough time. And truly, I think most of us could rationalize that by saying that I have to be here at this time, I have to be at work at that time. And so certainly it's easy to say that and it makes sense. But when we find out the importance of our health and the necessity of it, we kind of make time. And I remember that when I was working with her all those many years ago, you know, she would be in the gym sometimes at 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning.

MARTIN: That's kind of a nice way of saying that if they can find time to work out, what's wrong with you slackers? I mean, isn't that really kind of what you're saying in a nice way, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Let's just say it's a nice way of saying that we could all find time if we believe that it is essential and it is. I mean, there's one thing that no one argues with is that no matter what we achieve, that your health is the most important thing that you have.

MARTIN: How do you motivate people to work out who don't particularly want to work out?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, when there are people who are not motivated, you have to find out what it is in their life that motivates them. A lot of times people will come to see me from all walks of life. You know, I have people who are mothers who stay-at-home. I have people who are executives who are athletes, who are from all different walks of life. And everybody has something of value in their life that they prioritize. And you have to find what that is and in some way relate it to the benefit that will come from fitness and the benefit that will come from working out or will somehow enhance that.

MARTIN: What if your motivation is eating s'mores?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Not that, you know, hypothetically speaking.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Hypothetically speaking, if there was such a person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Whose name was Michele.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, what we do generally...

MARTIN: Not Obama.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Is we talk about that and we talk about what comes from that. I mean, you know, the positives and the negatives of that, you know. We're not trying to tell people that they should not ever eat a s'more or they should never have fun when it comes to food. But that it's probably more about doing 90 percent of what you need and about 10 percent of what you want. And remind them that they've done other things in their life. They've been incredible mothers, incredible wives, incredible fathers. They've been doctors, lawyers. They've been, you know, whatever that might be. So I know from that that they can achieve. They can stick to a task. And so, we just, you know, we kind of use from that motivation, from that point.

MARTIN: Now I know you can't divulge secrets, you know, about the first family. But can you give the ladies just a little hint about how they can get those Michelle Obama arms?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, one of the initial things about having Michelle Obama's arms is about being - it being a lifestyle. And so it's about being active on a daily basis. Because...

MARTIN: But you don't mean, like, lifting a bowl of popcorn every day. I presume that's not what you meant by the...

Mr. MCCLELLAN: No. I would think - when I say active, and as the first lady's campaign, "Let's Move" would say, it's actually about getting outside and doing some walking, doing some cycling, doing swimming, jumping rope and doing some strength training, doing different things.

You can even get points and benefits from gardening, because, of course, gardening will take every muscle in your body to participate in that. So we're asking people to be physically active, to actually - to push some things, to lift some things, to jump, to move, to run, to swim. And we're asking it to be done every day. When you do that on a daily basis, you will definitely see changes in your body. The next phase would be to consider what you're eating. Exercise and nutrition, they go hand-in-hand. They are both essential, and one is as important as the other.

MARTIN: So no shortcuts. No Spanx for the upper arms, or anything like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: The problem with Spanx, you have to take them off, you know.

MARTIN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: You know, so what we want you to do is to actually have those arms 24/7 by, again, being active. And now that spring is upon us and summer is coming, I mean, it's a wonderful time to get outside, to get the kids outside, to do some family activities. You know, I mean there are many things you can go on, like nature hikes with the kids. You can do family bicycle rides, or things like that. Play soccer with them, tag. There's just so many different things.

So, I mean, it's a wonderful way to be active with your kids or your families. So it's just, you know, it's just an essential part of, I think, again, your health is your wealth. And so it's just so important to be involved and to be physically active.

MARTIN: Cornell McClellan is the personal trainer to the first family and many members of the White House staff. He's a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and he was kind enough to join us from station WFMT in Chicago.

Mr. McClellan, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Thank you for having me. It's been a blast.

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