In the 1980s, Kathy Smith rose to fame as a workout queen, producing aerobics videos and motivating millions with her fitness classes and techniques. Today, Smith continues to inspire and energize those who want to lose weight and feel fit and healthy. In an illuminating interview, Smith tells Beliefnet's Health editor about how she got healthy in the wake of tragedy, how to start a fitness program, and why a "prayer walk" is sometimes the best exercise you can do.
Were you always so aware of health and fitness issues? If not, what brought you to that world?
What really got me focused on it was when I was a senior in high school, I was 17 years old and my dad died of a heart attack. He was 42 at the time, and I was very close to my father and it was a very devastating time for me. A year and a half later, my mom was killed in a plane crash. So, within a two-year period there, I lost both my parents.
This was a crazy time in not only my life, but in the world in the sense that I graduated high school in '69. We're talking about the Vietnam War. We're talking about people experimenting with alternative lifestyles. I went into kind of a tailspin, meaning losing confidence, depressed, not knowing what direction I wanted to take with my life.
I had a boyfriend at the time, and he was a football player. And he would go out to run, and I would go along with him. I wasn't very physical at that point, so I would run on a track. I would run one lap, and he would run four and I would walk another couple laps and then run another lap with him. And I would link these laps together eventually. I would come back from these, just a mile run, and I would think, Wow, I feel so much better. And I kept getting attracted to going out and doing a little bit more.
And it really piqued my interest. What was going on? When I go out for this run and I come back, I feel better, I feel more confident, I feel more alive, I feel alert, I feel stronger, I feel empowered. And that's how I initially got hooked on this whole aspect and this whole part of training and exercising. That eventually led to my career.
Would you say that it was like a personal rescue? Did it stop the tailspin?
Yeah, it was. It completely rescued me from, oh, just perhaps going another direction. It rescued me from a path that could have been partying and playing and low self-esteem and just not taking care of myself and getting into the wrong crowd. Without guidance and without parental supervision and the structure of a family and community, it was one of the things that I could have gone down a real bad path at that point. And I would say that this was my salvation. It really rescued me from an unhealthy lifestyle.
Do you reflect on that period in your life, and also generally on your health consciousness, in spiritual terms at all?
I'm very spiritually connected. I feel your body is this temple and it's a place that--you know, we've been given these magnificent vessels to do work, to contribute, to be part of a community, to be part of the world, the global universe.
When you're doing things to your body, when you're smoking, when you're drinking, when you're not exercising, and then you start to make that a part of your family, the whole thing starts to manifest itself in the way that you feel, the way that you project yourself to the world.
On the flip side, when you start taking care of yourself, when you start to honor yourself enough to say, You know what? I'm worth it. I'm worth it and I have a lot of things that I want to do with my life. I want to be here for my kids. I want to be here with my grandkids. I want to be here for my community. I want to be here for my work.
How do you see your role as a health and wellness teacher, and the fact that people really look to you as a source of wisdom, as a source of inspiration? Did you expect to play that role in your career?
When I got into this fitness movement, there wasn't necessarily a career here. I was one of the first people ever to do an exercise video, in 1982. And before exercise videos, there were exercise albums that we did. And I was one of the first people in 1976 to teach an exercise group class with music and aerobics. And it wasn't until 1973 that we even coined the term aerobics.
So no, I didn't have a clue when I first started out the role that I would have. But early on I got an inkling of it when I saw the response. I would teach a class, and I would have women coming up to me and talking about how they felt after a month of taking these classes, and not just because their thighs were thinner and not just because they had lost a little weight, but how empowered, how confident, how they'd never had this experience where they felt like they could go back out and have a relationship with their husband.
I also realized that part of it was I was so passionate about it, I had come--I had seen what it did to me. I realized that this--fitness, exercise, running--it saved my life.
What is your advice to people who want to start a fitness regime but feel, 'I've really let myself go'?
First of all, whenever I start somebody on a fitness program, I love for them to sit down and just reflect on why they want to start it. "Well, the doctor said my cholesterol level is too high." "Diabetes runs in my family." "I know my blood pressure's gone up." "I have a three-year-old grandchild. I love playing with her, but when I go to the park, I run out of energy." " When I go to bed at night, I'm not sleeping well." There might be a list.
When I'm working with them, I say, Okay, keep going. I mean, if you only have ten things on the list, that's not enough. Keep going. "My complexion, bone density, I want to walk around and show off my arms and I'm so embarrassed of my arms that I will never even wear short sleeve shirts any more."
As you make your list longer, longer, then you print it out and you put it in your bathroom and you put it on your refrigerator and you put one into your daily diary and you just reflect--Okay, there are so many more reasons to exercise than just simple weight loss or you want to look a little better in your clothes.
And that becomes the motivator.