Fit over 50
After pioneering female fitness 40 years ago, Denise Austin is leading the fitness movement for an aging population
by Elka Worner
At 66, fitness legend Denise Austin still wants us to squeeze our butts and move our muscles as she has for the past forty years.
“Feel my tummy. Come on. Feel my tummy,” she urged a woman attending the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce’s “Phenomenal Women” conference, where the San Pedro native delivered the keynote.
“Impressive,” the woman said, feeling Austin’s rock-hard abs.
The turbo charged Austin, dressed in a yellow mini skirt, which showed off her muscular thighs, didn’t stop there.
“Okay everybody, squeeze your buttocks…tight, tight, tight,” she yelled at the crowd of professional women. “Because if you don’t squeeze it, no one else will.”
Through her infectious energy, bubbly personality, and entrepreneurial drive, she has parlayed her love of fitness into a lucrative business empire.
Austin has sold more than 24 million exercise videos and DVD’s, published 12 best-selling fitness books, and starred in the number one fitness show in the history of television. There’s no sign she’s slowing down.
“I have been in the fitness industry for 40 years and have loved every bit of it,” Austin said. “The key is to stay positive wherever you are in your life.”
exercise and sports are in her DNA. She started as a gymnast at the age of 12, practicing up to five hours a day while at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance. Her prowess on the balance beam and powerful flips on the floor led to an athletic scholarship to the University of Arizona, where she studied exercise physiology.
After graduating, she caught the eye of fitness king Jack LaLanne, whom she met at a dinner party. “I told him ‘I could do handstands and aerial cartwheels on your show,’” she said.
Her moxie paid off. Austin was invited to co-host the popular “Jack LaLanne Show.” She eventually got her own show on KABC in Los Angeles, “Daybreak with Denise,” which aired at 5:30 a.m. targeting the early morning fitness enthusiasts.
She gave up her show when she married former tennis pro and Palos Verdes resident Jeff Austin, brother of tennis great Tracy Austin. The couple moved to Washington DC for his career as a sports attorney.
“It’s 1983, and fitness is big in LA, but not in DC,” Austin said, remembering how she stood out in her leotards and dolphin running shorts in a sea of business suits.
The fact that hardly anyone exercised in the nation’s capital, didn’t stop her from pursuing her dreams. A fan of the “Today Show,” she cold called its executive producer 35 times to pitch an aerobics segment and was finally invited to the New York studio.
“I was on the floor showing him all my favorite ab moves,” she said.
Her live demonstration led to a four-year contract as the show’s first fitness correspondent.
In 1985, she released her first exercise videos – bringing fitness into the home. She not only choreographed all her moves, but also handled her own marketing. “I knew I could sell myself better than anyone else,” she said.
That meant spending weekends at Walmart stores across the country to pitch her exercise videos.
“Every Saturday I would go to one in Dayton, Ohio, then I’d go to Kansas City,” she said. “I was working like a dog.”
Even pregnancy didn’t stop her. After Austin had her first child, she pivoted to pregnancy and after baby workout videos to help women get back in shape.
From there, she landed a show on ESPN, “Getting Fit with Denise Austin,” which aired for 10 years. She then moved to Lifetime where she hosted “Denise Austin’s Daily Workout” and “Fit and Lite,” for 14 years. According to the AARP, Austin’s television series became the longest running workout program in television history.
While she relied on her drive and vision to further her career, it was her supportive husband, who negotiated her contracts.
“My husband is a sports attorney. He’s very, very smart, so he helped me do the contracts. But I had the ideas,” she said.
Besides videos and fitness shows, Austin also branched out into active wear, athletic shoes – she has her own line of Easy Spirit walking shoes — and exercise equipment. She also launched a magazine, “Fit Over 50.”
When it comes to exercise and diet, Austin is a big believer in moderation. She works out just 30 minutes a day, incorporating cardio, strength training and stretching. She eats three meals a day, with plenty of lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy fats.
“I love food,” she said. “I come from a big family and all we do is eat and think about food.”
Growing up she would spend Sundays at her grandmother’s, who was a great cook.
“I spent a lot of time in the kitchen learning her recipes,” Austin said.
Her grandmother was also deeply religious, attending church every day. Her mother, who had five children, was the optimistic one.
“That’s what I get from my mom, my positivity, and my grandmother, more faith and food,” Austin said. “It’s a good combination.”
Austin passed on her love of fitness to her two daughters, Katie and Kelly.
Daughter Katie has followed closely in her mother’s footsteps, creating a fitness app with 250 workout routines and healthy recipes. Austin credited her daughters with keeping her relevant in the age of social media. She and Katie have produced several mother-daughter workouts.
“She’s the one who put me on Instagram and TikTok, and has guided me through the last eight years,” the fitness icon and Hermosa Beach resident said.
The key to her longevity, Austin said, is to never give up, whether in business or during a challenging exercise routine. She plans to work as long as she can.
“I love to help people get healthy and fit,” she said. Pen