Since the birth of modern exercise in the 1950s, Americans have been enamored with people who take fitness to the next level. These fitness celebrities have inspired us, educated us and, in some cases, flat-out guilted us into upping our own fitness game.
But like any industry, it took a number of trailblazers to build the $80 billion fitness gym empire to what it is today. Here are five fitness icons who shaped the U.S. fitness industry, and how they did it.
Famous for: Founding the modern fitness movement and hosting a television fitness program that spanned 30 years
Jack LaLanne, the original fitness guru and television star, is considered the founder of the modern fitness revolution. After growing up as an overweight kid on his parents’ sheep farm in California, LaLanne’s whole life turned a corner at age 15. At a Women’s Club meeting with his mother, the teenager heard a talk given by nutritionist Paul C. Bragg about the value of a high-quality diet. Through strict nutrition and challenging workouts, he soon began the transformation that would change the course of his life. LaLanne reportedly spurned snacking and ate just two meals a day.
A true star, LaLanne had a beloved exercise television program that ran from 1951 to the mid-1980s. He was equally well known for his innovative fitness techniques. He popularized vegetable juicing and protein drinks, advocated daily workouts and was sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Fitness.” Less commonly known is that he designed and invented many machines still used in gyms around the country, including the leg extension machine. He also conceived (but didn’t actually develop) the squat machine known as the “Smith Machine.”
LaLanne was also known for performing fantastic physical feats. At 60 years old, he swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf while handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat. At 70, again handcuffed and shackled, he towed 70 boats, carrying a total of 70 people, a mile and a half through Long Beach Harbor. LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96.
Famous for: Founding an exercise empire devoted to helping people of all sizes, and starring in the iconic video series “Sweatin’ to the Oldies”
By the end of high school, Richard Simmons was 5’7” and weighed 268 pounds. Driven by self-loathing, he began dieting, which developed into an eating disorder that almost killed him. Fortunately, this crisis shaped his healthy outlook on food and the importance of “balance, moderate eating and exercise.” He encouraged the philosophy of self-love, at any size.
Simmons opened his own gym, The Anatomy Asylum, in the early 1970s, as a welcoming place for people of all sizes to work out, going against the then-established rule that gyms were for people already in shape. Anatomy Asylum was unmistakably different and by 1984 grew to 13 sites across the U.S. Its Beverly Hills location, eventually rebranded as “Slimmons,” finally closed its doors in 2016 after more than 40 years.
A television star and author of several books, Simmons created a library of exercise videos featuring people of all sizes performing aerobic workouts set to pop-dance music. He wore his iconic striped “short shorts” in all his videos and appearances. Simmons also befriended many overweight people who felt isolated and hopeless. Eventually, his acceptance of all shapes and sizes began to change the public’s perception of fitness.
Simmons was recently back in the news due to rumors that he was being held hostage by his long-time housekeeper. Contrary to a popular podcast about his mysterious absence from the fitness culture, Simmons has confirmed that he is not missing.
Famous for: Being a prolific American fitness instructor and author who has produced nearly 100 workout videos
Known as “America’s Fitness Sweetheart,” Denise Austin was front and center in the 1980s fitness movement. She has sold more than 24 million exercise videos and DVDs, has authored 12 books on fitness, and starred in the longest-running fitness show in TV history.
A celebrated fitness expert for more than three decades, Austin continues to help people reach their fitness goals through her LifeFit 360 plan. Austin also served two terms on what is now known as the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Famous for: Founding CrossFit and spawning an entire universe of related fitness products, workouts and philosophies
In 1995, a former gymnast named Greg Glassman opened The Box, the first specialized gym. Today, that gym has transformed into CrossFit, the empire spanning 144 countries, 13,546 active affiliate franchises and astounding 4 million “CrossFitters.” Although they come from a variety of fitness backgrounds, Glassman’s devotees share a passion for the CrossFit philosophy: that health and happiness are directly correlated to one’s effort and commitment.
An atheist and college dropout, Glassman has said he sees himself as more of a world-changer than a businessman, driven by a mission to spread “a profound metabolic truth” about diet and exercise to an overweight, inactive, sick population. Harvard Divinity School likens CrossFit to a religion of sorts, which would make Glassman its honorary Pope.
Famous for: Inventing the ultra-popular Tae Bo workout, creating wildly successful infomercials and being a sought-after celebrity trainer
Billy Blanks was the ultimate fitness guru for 1990s kids, parents and celebrities. His dynamic workout infomercial seemed to be running continuously on every station. Tae Bo, an amalgamation of kickboxing and karate, introduced women to the benefits of this once male-dominated martial art. Eventually, what seemed like the whole world was enjoying the sweaty, exhausting Tae Bo workout.
Fun, fat-burning and cardio-friendly, Blanks’ workout DVDS sold like hotcakes. The workout’s die-hard enthusiasts quickly got fit and lost weight. Blanks’ videos racked up sales of more than 2 million, and even 20 years later, his engaging workout style is still drawing newcomers through DVDs and streaming workouts.
After more than six decades of fitness obsession, you’d think America would have found the routine that helps us cure our obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. But despite our perpetual search for optimized health, there are plenty of icons showing us the way every day—from the ones listed in this article to modern influencers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jillian Michaels.