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.
Well, the easiest thing for most people is a walking program. It's convenient. It's low cost. You need a pair of walking shoes and you could walk out your door.
And that could be a very simple, not very intimidating way to start on just doing--start with 10, 15 minutes. I typically would have somebody go out and mark off a mile on a street. Take your car, mark off a mile and just see how fast you walk that mile. Don't try to push it further. You know, don't try to go extra hard. But see how you would typically walk that mile.
And then, what you do, too, is you'd come back and you'd say, "Okay, every day, I'm going to start taking off a little time off that mile." So if you are walking a 30-minute mile, which is extremely slow, but if you're walking it, say, "Okay, my goal is to do it in 28 minutes and then 25 minutes."
Then I would start adding some light weights to your program, a little bit of strength training. You only have to do it twice a week, and it only takes about 15 minutes to work every muscle in your body, to do about 10 repetitions.
So you could have some light weights at home, maybe a three-pound, maybe a five-pound set of weights. And you just go through a set of bicep curls, maybe an overhead press. And you do a few exercises that work your body. Does that sound complicated?
Not at all.
But even though I love to give guidelines to people, the biggest thing that I want people to do is move. So if somebody says, "You know what? I love square dancing. I love to go bowling." Then that is what I want you out there doing.
I want you moving because that is where the bottom line is. Got to get something that you enjoy, you enjoy doing it and then we build from there.
What would you say to people who start doing something like what you're describing, but they don’t see the results that they thought they would see?
When people are discouraged because they're not seeing the results that they want, I first of all go through and have them think about, Are you being realistic?
Secondly, tell me what you're doing right now because one of the things about exercise is that our bodies adapt to exercise.
But then beyond that, there is a point where you need to start practicing acceptance. And there's a point where you trust the process, and then you let go and you accept certain things about yourself. Part of it is starting to shift your focus to say, Let's look at what you like about your body, what you love about what you've been given. Accentuate the positive.
Have you ever experienced moments of discouragement?
Yes, it is a growth process for all of us, including for myself, of course. After I had my babies, my skin stretched a little bit. For me, it's still flat, but it still doesn't have the same kind of quality because, you know, there's an aging process. And there's a little bit of dimpling or there's a little bit of skin--and especially with aging.
And you know, at the point you can stay fixated on it and you can feel miserable about where you're at, or you can shift to, "Gosh, I feel so blessed to be able to go on this hike today, to be able to be hiking and to think that I have this strong body with these legs and this lung capacity that can be up on this hill and enjoying nature and being out and looking at the ocean and being with my friends and having an hour and a half where I can talk and relate and be thankful."
You just shift to gratitude for what you have. I mean, you think I have these great kids. So am I going to sit here and complain that my belly's not quite the same it was when I'm 25 years old and before I had kids?
Do you think fitness is ultimately a solitary pursuit, or does it depend on a sense of community?
I think it's an extremely important part of fitness to get involved with family, community, friends for your activities. Reason being is that it helps motivate you, starting with the very basic thing of when you have to get out and move, you're going to.
And there's days where it's like, "Oh, I don't want to do anything." And yet if you know that you're meeting friends and, again, you're not labeling, "I'm going out for a workout" when the idea is, '"I'm going out to meet Fran and Nina and we're going to go walk the neighborhood and catch up." It becomes something you really look forward to.
What are some spiritual techniques that might heighten the likelihood of someone sticking with a fitness program or feeling like they're succeeding?
Well, I think simple things, starting with your walks. If you go out for a walk, talk about the community and going with friends, but it's also very special to go out by yourself, and do a prayer walk. Go out, and on your breaths, find an affirmation that works for you, a prayer that works for you, a one line, like, "God, reveal yourself to me." Or it might even be just Our Father or Hail Mary or something--and as you go for your 30-minute walk, you are connecting with God, but then also with nature.
So as you go down the street, what I like to do is be very, very present on every step. So if you're going by a rose, if you're going by a palm tree, as you smell a gardenia, as you walk by a dog, as you just--everything that comes past you that's around you, the sky, the light, the moisture from the humidity on your face, whatever is touching you, feeling you, all your senses, you relate that to God and your gratitude for it and just the wonderment of it all.
Otherwise, I would say that there's just, before and after, whenever I'm on a hike and with friends, we do gratitude prayers at the top of a point where we always reach. So we do our Saturday hikes, and when we get to a point, we stop and we do a gratitude prayer.
Or actually it's not always a gratitude prayer. It could be a prayer for somebody, typically. And that'll be, you're on the walk and it's like, "Okay, we're all walking and we find out that Joyce's husband is going in for surgery " or something. And then you find a point, you sit and you do a prayer for that person.