Fits 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 years old, fitness legend Denise Austin still wants us to squeeze our butts and move our muscles the way she’s been doing for the past 40 years.
“Feel my belly. 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 turbocharged Austin, dressed in a yellow miniskirt that showed off her toned thighs, didn’t stop there.
“Okay everyone, squeeze your buttocks… tight, tight, tight,” she yelled to the crowd of professional women. “Because if you don’t squeeze it, no one else will.”
Her infectious energy, bubbly personality and entrepreneurial drive have turned her love of fitness into a lucrative business empire.
Austin has sold more than 24 million exercise videos and DVDs, published 12 best-selling fitness books, and starred in the number one fitness show in television history. There’s no sign of her slowing down.
“I’ve been in the fitness industry for 40 years and loved it,” said Austin. “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 and practiced for up to five hours a day 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 from college, she caught the eye of fitness king Jack LaLanne, whom she met at a dinner party. “I told him, ‘I could do handstands and cartwheels in the air 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. and was aimed at 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 lawyer.
“It’s 1983 and fitness is big in LA, but not in DC,” Austin said, remembering how she stood out in her dolphin leotards and running shorts in a sea of business suits.
The fact that hardly anyone played sports in the country’s capital did not stop her from pursuing her dreams. A fan of the “Today Show,” she cold called the executive producer 35 times to pitch an aerobics segment and was finally invited to the studio in New York.
“I lay on the floor and showed him all my favorite abdominal 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 your home. She not only choreographed all her moves, but also took care of 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 pitching her workout videos.
“Every Saturday I went to one in Dayton, Ohio, then I went to Kansas City,” she said. “I worked like a dog.”
Even pregnancy didn’t stop her. After Austin had her first child, she turned 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 advance her career, it was her supportive husband who negotiated her contracts.
“My husband is a sports lawyer. He’s very, very smart, so he helped me draw up the contracts. But I had the ideas,” she said.
In addition to videos and fitness shows, Austin also branches into activewear, athletic shoes — she has her own line of Easy Spirit walking boots — 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 for just 30 minutes a day, including cardio, strength training, and stretching. She eats three meals a day, with plenty of lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats.
“I like food,” she said. “I come from a big family and all we do is eat and think about food.”
Growing up, she spent Sundays with her grandmother, 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 and attended 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 followed closely in her mother’s footsteps and created a fitness app with 250 workout routines and healthy recipes. Austin credited her daughters with keeping her relevant in the social media age. She and Katie have done several mother-daughter workouts.
“She’s the one who put me on Instagram and TikTok and guided me through the last eight years,” said the fitness icon and resident of Hermosa Beach.
The key to her longevity, Austin said, is to never give up, whether in business or during a challenging workout routine. She plans to continue working as long as possible.
“I love helping people get healthy and fit,” she said. Pen