Anyone who’s ever done a squat, crunch or hamstring stretch in front of the TV likely knows super-fit, super-energetic exercise guru Denise Austin.
Since the 1980s, the 5-foot-4-inch blonde livewire has been inspiring Americans to get in shape on long-running televised workout shows, including ESPN’s “Getting Fit with Denise Austin” and Lifetime’s “Denise Austin’s Daily Workout,” as well as regular exercise segments on “The Today Show.”
Apart from television, Austin has conveyed her 30-year-long health and fitness message on workout DVDs (nearly 25 million sold), through an e-newsletter (over 2 million subscribers), via magazine columns in “Woman’s Day” and “Prevention” and, starting in 2013, across a line of fitness products for the Rite Aid pharmacy.
She has served as a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and authored 14 books, including the new “Side Effect Skinny: Denise Austin’s Fat-Blast Diet.”
When she began teaching aerobics in the late 1970s, Austin, now 55, wasn’t envisioning a fitness empire.
“I just kept working!” she says with a laugh. “But from the beginning, I knew I could motivate people. I had the energy to get people fit.”
Years before she became a successful fitness brand, Denise Katnich was the typical all-American girl growing up in Palos Verdes, Calif., the middle child of five siblings. Her parents, especially her mother, Rita, a homemaker and office manager, was her role model.
“She was the happiest person to be around,” Austin says. “She taught us not to take ourselves so seriously.”
At 12, Denise took up gymnastics, practicing five hours daily throughout high school. She attended the University of Arizona at Tucson on a gymnastics scholarship, then transferred to California State University at Long Beach, graduating in 1979 with a physical education degree with an exercise physiology emphasis.
After college, Austin began teaching aerobics, a then-new type of group exercise. In 1981, prior to a class in Redondo Beach, Calif., she noticed a couple hitting tennis balls on an adjacent court. The girl was 17-year-old U.S. Open champ Tracy Austin. The guy was her older brother, tennis pro Jeff Austin.
“He called and asked me out,” she recalls. “Now we’ve been married almost 30 years.”
Meeting her idol
Soon after meeting her future husband, Austin met her idol, TV fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne.
“I ran up to him at a dinner and said, ‘May I come on your show? I can do cartwheels and handstands and a one-armed pushup!’”
LaLanne said yes and soon made Austin the co-host of his exercise show. The two fitness aficionados remained dear friends until LaLanne’s death in 2011 at age 96.
“He was my big-time hero and mentor,” Austin says. “He always believed in me, which meant the world.”
By 1983, Austin was hosting her own fitness TV show, “Daybreak with Denise” on KNBC in Los Angeles. But her blooming career screeched to a halt when she and Jeff relocated to the Washington, D.C., area for his job as a sports attorney.
“I left my friends, family and my business,” she says. “I had to start over.”
True to form, Austin turned a negative into a positive.
“I thought, D.C. is near New York, where “The Today Show” is filmed,” she says. “In 1984, no one had done fitness on ‘Today.’”
Austin called the executive producer and left a message. She called 35 times before she got him on the phone and he gave her a shot. “Don’t wait for someone to call you,” she says. “Go for it and make it happen.”
Austin’s early and current accomplishments come as no surprise to husband Jeff, 60. “Her success comes from persistence, her ability to connect with people and her enthusiasm,” he says. “It’s contagious.”
Austin also passed down her can-do attitude to her daughters, Kelly, 22, and Katie, 19, both now University of Southern California students who grew up playing lacrosse in Alexandria, Va.
“When they were little girls, they would play tennis with their daddy or we’d go on bike rides or walks,” Austin says. “I never had to say, ‘Go do sit-ups!’ Fitness was just a part of our family.”
Austin’s good example at home extended to her career.
“Her message is common sense combined with hard work,” says Steven Petrow, 55, editorial director of Everyday Health Inc., a partner at Austin’s website, deniseaustin.com. “She does not get seduced by trends.”
Austin’s consistent mantra—exercise, eat right and get plenty of rest—sounds too simple to be effective. But she is living proof that it works.
“I walk the walk,” she says.
Then, as if to get us all up and moving, she stands up. “But I still have so much to do.”