Fitness Guru Takes Message to Congress

Fitness guru Richard Simmons has outlasted every fitness fad of the last three decades, and built a business empire based on teaching people about sensible eating and exercise. Now he's poised to testify before a congressional committee about helping American children fight obesity. Richard Simmons opens up about his own battles with weight loss and his passion for fitness.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. You know that voice.

Mr. RICHARD SIMMONS (Fitness Guru): It's sweating time!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SIMMONS: Come on. Oh, get that body going.

MARTIN: If you haven't figured it out yet, that is fitness guru Richard Simmons. His command of nutrition and exercise technique along with his always positive attitude have inspired countless people to shed a few pounds and do it with a smile. This week he's headed to Capitol Hill. He's going to tell us why. Richard Simmons joins us now. Welcome. Nice to talk to you.

Mr. SIMMONS: Hi. I'm so excited. NPR, and they gave me a hat.

MARTIN: They gave you a hat?

Mr. SIMMONS: I have a beige hat here with NPR. I've never had one. I'm very excited and I'm excited to talk to you, Michel.

MARTIN: OK. OK. You know, I didn't realize until I was preparing for this interview that you were a child star before - overseas, before you became a fitness star in this country?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I was a very overweight child. I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana. I grew up without any physical education because back then it was only sports and you know, you stand around in the schoolyard and if you're fat or different or out of shape they never pick you. So I never had any, sort of, P.E. at all. I was 200 pounds in the eighth grade. You think back to what you weighed in eighth grade. And when I graduated high school I was almost 300 pounds.

I'm a compulsive eater who had never, ever, ever worked out before. And I got the opportunity to go to school in Italy and there, being a very obese little boy, I did some movies and I did some commercials and some billboards. And you know, it was a happy time but yet it was very sad that when the lights went off and I wasn't doing my modeling and stuff or being in a movie, I was a very, sort of, unhappy, bewildered teenager who couldn't figure out what I wanted in life and why I had such a strong relationship with food.

MARTIN: Do you think that you're kind of, happy, happy, happy demeanor came from this wanting to fit in, wanting some way to connect with people?

Mr. SIMMONS: Totally. I am a court jester and I am a clown and I have been since a very early age. I sold pralines, these little candies on the street corner to bring extra money in for my parents. And I would have to be cute and adorable and fun and sing and smile and they bought my candy. And I learned a long time ago that humor was just simply a gift and that if you made people happy it was certainly a lot better than making them sad. So I've always been that clown or court jester. I've had the gift of making people laugh. Unfortunately, you know, I wasn't really sometimes laughing with them because I was in a lot of pain because I think I was in a lot of denial about my weight and my eating habits.

MARTIN: Is the rest of your family heavy?

Mr. SIMMONS: No. I came from a very light family. My mother was a Ziegfeld Follies girl. She was 88 pounds. My father was a singer and dancer on Broadway. He was 145 pounds all his life. My brother was very thin. It's just that I - for some reason food became extremely important to me at a very early age. I lived in the French Quarter so, you know, the food was there and it was prevalent and it was all fried. And you know, I did some terrible things to try to lose weight. You know, I began 30 laxatives a day.

MARTIN: How old were you?

Mr. SIMMONS: When I began to take laxatives I was 11.

MARTIN: Wow! No. Wow.

Mr. SIMMONS: By the time I was 13, I was throwing up after every meal. I tried diet pills. And then when I was 19, I starved for two and a half months and I lost 116 pounds and I almost died. And at that point in my life I had to have a rebirth. What does Richard Simmons want and how can he get healthy and continue to do two things: make people laugh and help people? Because that's all I ever wanted to do in my life.

MARTIN: Well, hold on for a second. So you were overseas and you were achieving success as a television commercial, sort of, personality, and you were obviously getting some validation for that. And you talked about how that was, you know, a double-edged sword. So when did you get interested in losing weight? Even though you went about it in the wrong way, what happened?

Mr. SIMMONS: Someone left me a note and it was a note that changed my life and it said, Dear Richard, you're very funny but fat people die young. Please don't die. And I don't think I had ever, Michel, related my weight to my longevity, as all of us think that we're quite infallible. But that was it. That was the start of me getting scared and that's why I went on a crash diet and lost the weight. But unfortunately, I lost my health.

MARTIN: What do you think turned it around for you? Because some people never get out of that cycle of binge and purge and crash and stuff?

Mr. SIMMONS: I had a lot of dreams. I had a lot of dreams. My mind was filled with things I wanted to do, adventures, people I wanted to meet and just things that I had thought about all my life that I wanted to achieve. And I let that - those strong points influence me to stay in a program. Also, I thought - and many people don't do this when they're in a crisis like that - I made a list called the Love List. I made a list of the people that truly loved me no matter what, that never judged me, that gave me unconditional love. And I used their support and love to help me to regain my strength and to learn how to eat and to finally, after all these years, to try and exercise, something I had never done before.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with fitness legend Richard Simmons about America's obesity epidemic and legislation he's supporting to keep physical education in the schools.

You're taking your fight for fitness to Capitol Hill, testifying in front of the House Committee on Education and Labor about physical fitness programs in schools. Tell me about that. Why this topic? Why now?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, five years ago - I get thousands of emails and letters every day, and five years ago I noticed a shift in my mail. This is when the No Child Left Behind Act came into creation by President Bush. This was supposed to make our child well rounded. In a sad say, it's made them rounded.

In order for the No Child Left Behind Act to have been created, you had to have the schools teach more reading and more math. And because of that, because of our test scores, they took out courses. They took out language in some cities, they took out recess, P.E., arts, theater, music, in order to make our kids at test grade. And Lord knows I want our kids to do well with their test scores, but they're not just a test score.

So I saw this shift in my mail and so I decided to send out a questionnaire. So I went on David Letterman and "The Today Show," and all these shows, and I asked people to come to my Web site and to fill out a questionnaire, and 60,000 people did. And I took the results of these questionnaires and I took them to Washington last year with Congressman Wamp and Congressman Kind, and I helped advocate a bill called the Fit Kids Bill, to get physical fitness in a great way so our kids can move, have time to get out there and you know, just have some freedom, have some recess, and I believe that the kids will learn better.

So Chairperson George Miller asked if I would come to Washington on July 24th and at 10 a.m. be at the House Education and Labor Committee hearing room to have a complete congressional hearing on children's obesity and improving physical education. I am going to get P.E., in a big way, back in the schools because our kids are becoming diabetic, our kids are becoming lazy, our kids are becoming depressed, high cholesterol, social skill problems, and I'm going to help out. And I'm going to say to Congress, let me be your servant. Let me help you get this done.

MARTIN: It must feel good to have members of Congress listening to you on something like this. I mean, do you kind of feel vindicated that all this work over the years has taken you to a place where you don't have to be funny to get attention?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I'm going to still be funny. I think it's a wonderful key to meeting people and to relating with people but you know, I am honored to be doing this congressional hearing. They have never done a congressional hearing that is like this ever, so I'm going to stand there and I'm going to speak from my heart and I - you know, I know what I am going to say and I'm going to talk about all the research that I have done, and then I'm going to give them their solutions to bringing fitness back in the schoolroom without it costing an arm and a leg and with everyone being happy.

MARTIN: Did you ever get to a point where you thought, you know, I'll never master this weight thing and it's just hopeless? And if you ever hit that point, how did you turn it around? I'm asking, obviously, if there's somebody listening who is at that point who feel hopeless, I just can't turn around.

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, you know, we all judge ourselves by the numbers on the scale, and this is very, very sad. And for anyone who is just trying to begin, the first thing I ask people to do in my studio is count your blessings, and we sit there and we journal and we write down our blessings. And you have to come from a place of love to lose weight. You can't come from a place of hate, you can't come from a place of desperation, you can't be willing to do this to find a beau or get a better job. You have to do this simply for your health and to live longer and to be around the people you love.

The first thing you need to do is get a physical, and there's a lot of free clinics if you can't afford one, and then you have to pick a program that is balanced and that includes the next three things. Number one, motivation daily. Number two, cutting your portions. And number three, moving every single day, at least 30 to 45 minutes a day. That's the formula. I am 60 years old now, and that's the formula that has kept my weight off all these years.

MARTIN: I hear you just had a birthday.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, 60 years old! You know, back in the olden days I used to think 60 was old, but you know, here I am, I - you know, I have an exercise studio in Beverly Hills called Slimmons, and when I opened it up I was 25 years old, and when I taught in my studio on my birthday I was 60, and I was as good as ever. So I have a lot of expertise and I have a lot of knowledge to share with our government and hopefully the next president.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask you about that. Are you following the presidential campaign at all?

Mr. SIMMONS: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: Anything you want to share? Is there either candidate you feel gets it right on issues of health or...

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I need both of them to really talk more about our obesity problem. You know, we're talking about economics, we're talking about gas, we're talking about war, we're talking about a lot of stuff, but we have a war right here. We have a serious war right here. And you know, I'm just waiting to see who is going to talk about obesity with children? Who is going to talk about redoing our school system? Who is going to talk about, you know, P.E. in the school? I'm waiting to hear that.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting to me, though, is that there was this - you know how people are always - and people can criticize the media, of course, which they do, but one of the things that's been interesting to me is that there are these campaign rituals which are fundamentally unhealthy. I mean, what are you supposed to do? You're supposed to get out and get the waffles and the donut and the corndog, and if you don't want that people make fun of you, like when apparently Barack Obama went to a diner and he got salmon and brown rice, people made fun of him. Oh, who does he think he is? And I just wonder if you think there's something wrong in the culture. On the one hand we know obesity is a problem. On the other hand, when people try to create different habits and model different behavior, it's like, oh, who do you think you are?

Mr. SIMMONS: Everyone must remember that food is love. Every parent that gave their child food and gave them too much food did it out of love. So this is from a place of love. So when Obama walks in and there's donuts and corndogs and fresh biscuits that somebody made, and he comes in and wants brown rice and salmon, they think that's an insult, which it's not, but it's that that man wants to take care of his body and that man doesn't want to eat that. But when you say no to that food, I mean, everyone gets upset because they get their feelings hurt because they think you're rejecting their love.

MARTIN: So do you have some wisdom to share with us as you head into - you've had this big milestone, you're 60, you're testifying before Congress, you're still out there doing your thing.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. I mean, I travel 200 days a year. They just put out my "Sweatin'" DVDs. I can't say enough about a positive attitude. I can't say enough about journaling, about sitting down at night before you go to bed and writing down how you did for the day and plan the next day. I can't say enough about asking for support and having a circle of loved ones be there for you.

I get up very early in the morning and I say my prayers at 4:30 and I head up to my gym in my house. I put my music on, you know, a little Mariah Carey, a little Rihanna, and I go to it. And I have to tell you, the movement is what's kept me young. So no matter what age you are, God gives you another day to start over if you didn't do well today. And you really have to combine the three things like I talked before. You must have the positive attitude. Not the half glass empty, but the half glass full. You have to watch your portions because everything counts. And my Lord, your body was made and created to move. If you do those three things, you will age but gracefully, and you will be young and flexible and resilient.

MARTIN: All right. Fitness guru Richard Simmons. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you so much.

Mr. SIMMONS: (Singing) NPR. This is Richard Simmons for National Public Radio. Thank you, Michel, for having me as a guest.

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