Denise Austin: The Fitness Guru Who Took Over The '90s

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From leg-warmers, leotards, and step-aerobics to Lululemon, and athleisure to spinning, trends in fitness come and go. That is, except for Denise Austin. After leading a long-running exercise TV show that lasted for more than a decade and selling millions of workout tapes and DVDs along the way in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s, Austin is still as motivated as ever to getting you up off that couch and moving.

"It was 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' and leg warmers when I started in the early '80s, and aerobics had just started getting popular," Austin told Woman's World in 2022. "Things are very different now. But in the same way, people just wanted to feel good and move, exercise, and get some energy. And that's always stayed the same throughout my 40 years in the fitness industry."

Whether she's sharing a quick, five-minute stretch program or yoga routine on her YouTube channel, or healthy recipes and lifestyle tips on her website, Austin's energetic and sunny persona hasn't dimmed during her four decades at the forefront of fitness. As she also shared with Woman's World, her positivity is a part of her overall wellness practice and keeps her feeling youthful. But how did Denise Austin go from being a fitness correspondent on "The Today Show" in the 1980s to becoming "America's Favorite Fitness Expert" in the '90s and beyond? Here's what we know about the fitness legend.

Denise Austin started out teaching aerobics in Los Angeles

A career in movement was always in the cards for San Pedro, California, native Denise Austin. Growing up, she was involved in gymnastics. She went on to attend California State University in Long Beach, where she earned a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1979, according to her website. After graduation, she taught aerobics in the greater Los Angeles area and got her big break in the fitness industry from the legendary "godfather of modern fitness," Jack LaLanne.

Austin became a co-host of "The Jack LaLanne Show" in 1981, finding in LaLanne a mentor and eventually close friend. But it was her signature can-do attitude that pulled her to LaLanne in the first place. She shared with the Washington Post in 2010 that she pitched herself as LaLanne's co-host just after meeting him! When asked about her "smartest move," Austin said, "Running up to Jack LaLanne at a dinner party and introducing myself ... I told him, 'I can do handstands and aerial cartwheels on your show!'"

As she told the Los Angeles Times in 2009, co-hosting LaLanne's TV show was a major turning point early on in her career: "California, and Los Angeles especially, was sort of the hub of aerobics in the 1980s. ... After that came 'Daybreak With Denise' [on KABC in L.A.] in 1983. Then I did the NBC 'Today Show' as a fitness expert from 1984 to 1988. So that really sort of launched my career."

Denise Austin has sold more than 25 million VHS and DVD workout videos

In the early '80s, Denise Austin released her first two VHS workout videos. Titles like "Swingin' to the Big Bands," "Stretch & Flex," and "Hit the Spot: Rock Hard Abs" followed, as did DVDs eventually, from "Fit in a Flash to Burn Fat Fast Latin Dance and Yoga Booty Lift." According to NewBeauty, Austin has sold over 25 million copies of her workout videos throughout her 40-plus-year career. And, as noted on her website, the success of these more than 100 videos got her inducted in 2003 to the Video Hall of Fame.

Austin told the Washington Post in 2010 that she learned an early lesson in marketing basics from her father, who was an executive with the Mars candy company. She said her dad would visit grocery stores to see how his company's products were being displayed. When it came to her own products, Austin applied a similar approach over the years: "When I go see my DVDs or my sisters or brother go to Target or Wal-Mart, we always check to make sure my DVDs are facing out."

Workout videos haven't been Austin's only direct-to-home way of reaching fans. She's also the author of multiple books on fitness-related topics, from 1997's "Jumpstart" to 2011's "Get Energy!" Austin has also headlined special-issue magazines, like Denise Austin's Fit Over 50 in 2021 and Denise and Katie Austin's Fit in the Kitchen in 2022, which she produced with her daughter. 

On TV, Denise Austin led the longest-running fitness show in history

If you happened to be channel-surfing in the early morning hours of the late 1980s or 1990s, odds are you came across one of fitness legend Denise Austin's TV shows. "Getting Fit with Denise Austin" aired on ESPN for 10 years, according to Austin's website. She later moved to Lifetime, where she hosted "Denise Austin's Daily Workout" and "Fit & Lite" for 14 years. As noted by AARP, Austin's television series became the longest-running workout program in the history of TV.

Austin's TV workouts featured a variety of exercise styles in addition to exotic on-location backdrops, from the rugged landscapes of Arizona to island paradises like Hawaii, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos. From yoga and stretching to step aerobics and weight training, Austin compelled viewers to join her in working out with her signature enthusiasm and positive, quippy affirmations, like "Your spine is your lifeline, so keep it healthy [and] keep it strong!" and "If you don't squeeze it, no one else will!"

On her Instagram page, Austin frequently looks back fondly on her many years of delivering fitness content via her television shows. In January 2023, she posted a #TBT clip of one of her beach workouts and shared how much fun filming it was: "So many FUN memories of when I used to film my TV show ... I had the BEST time with the entire crew on set!!!"

Denise Austin's husband is a successful sports agent whose clients have included basketball star Steph Curry

Athletics have been a part of Denise and Jeff Austin's relationship since the very beginning. Jeff, a former pro tennis player and big brother to two-time US Open champ Tracy Austin, met Denise when she was working as an aerobics director at a tennis club in Torrance, California. Even the couple's wedding included some time for fitness! "We had the best time of our lives. People still say it was the best wedding," Denise recalled to The New York Times in 2012. "What I remember most is — that in high heels, wedding dress, and my veil — I led everyone in aerobics to the Devo song 'Whip It.'"

After Jeff moved on from playing professional tennis, he became a successful sports agent. His noteworthy clients over the years have included basketball stars David Robinson and Steph Curry. Over the years, Jeff has been a big supporter of Denise's entrepreneurial ventures as well as her growing stardom in the fitness and lifestyle arenas. He told Sports Business Journal in 2018 that he has never minded taking a backseat to the successes of the women in his life, whether it's his sister, wife, or daughters: "I just bask in the reflected glory of the women in my life. It's terrific."

Denise Austin's daughters are following in her wellness footsteps

The apples haven't fallen far from the tree in the case of fitness icon Denise Austin's two daughters. Both Kelly Austin and Katie Austin have pursued careers in either the fitness/lifestyle or wellness spaces. Kelly inherited her family's athletic prowess, becoming the number-one-ranked female lacrosse player in America in 2008 when she was in high school. Since then, she's turned to more spiritual pursuits. She privately consults with clients in practices like Reiki, astrology, meditation, and relationship-coaching.

Kelly's younger sister, Katie, has followed more closely in their mom's fitness footsteps. Through her app and YouTube channel, Katie has become a successful fitness and lifestyle influencer. She also does regular workout collaborations with Denise for outlets like PopSugar as well as their own social media channels. In 2022, she was named a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie of the Year.

In managing her growing business, Katie hasn't had to look too far for advice. Beyond the guidance of her mom (who told Woman's World in 2022 that Katie used to follow along to her workouts on set while she was filming them!), Katie has been able to lean on Jeff for many behind-the-scenes tasks. She told Sports Business Journal in 2018 that her dad has been very involved in helping her navigate her growing company. "It's funny because sometimes when I get emails from top companies, I'll say, 'My agent will call you,' and it will be my dad," she said.

Denise Austin was appointed to multiple terms on the presidential physical fitness council

Denise Austin took her fitness mission to new heights in 2002, when she was appointed by President George W. Bush to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. The White House's official press release announcing her appointment described her as a "well-known fitness expert" and noted her Lifetime TV show and appearances on the PBS show "Healthweek." Other appointees to the council that year included less well-known individuals like an exercise physiologist and a state health department director and more notable ones like Olympic medal-winning track and field athlete Marion Jones and Dallas Cowboys football running back Emmit Smith.

The President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, as it came to be known, was created in 1956, and those appointed to it serve in an advisory and ambassadorial role. According to the council's website, "through partnerships with the public, private, and non-profit sectors, the Council promotes programs and initiatives that motivate people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to lead active, healthy lives."

Austin ended up serving a second term on the council and also participated in launching the U.S. Department of Agriculture's updated food pyramid system (as highlighted on her website). At the launch in 2005, she gave a "pep talk" about the importance of getting in your recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise and also appeared in a TV commercial promoting the new pyramid on behalf of the Idaho Potato Commission.

From activewear and athletic shoes to healthy snacks, Denise Austin has been a leader in lifestyle entrepreneurship

Throughout Denise Austin's many years in the fitness industry, she's maintained a laser-sharp focus on propelling herself forward in her career, whether calling a "Today Show" executive producer 35 times in the mid-1980s to secure a regular segment on the morning show or developing numerous product lines along the way. She told the Washington Post in 2010 that identifying herself as a brand has been critical for her lasting success. Her connection with her fans has also been essential. "I have a brand. I am a brand. I protect my brand," she said. "I am really in tune, through, to my readers and fans."

Austin's consumer products have included activewear, athletic shoes, exercise equipment, and healthy snack foods. Among her many ventures are "Forever Fit," a line of more than 30 exercise products that was sold at Rite Aid in 2012 (as noted on Austin's website). With her daughter Katie, she launched a line of probiotic-filled snacks called Ever Better. In early 2023, she partnered with shoe brand Easy Spirit on a line of supportive footwear and appeared on HSN to promote her collaboration.

Beyond her many endorsements and products, fans of Austin can also sign up for a membership on her website. As she shared on Instagram in 2022, "Being able to help guide each of you into living a healthier life makes me so happy and it's why I'm here."

Denise Austin has no plans to retire

Walking the runway in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit show seems like it would rank high on a list of nerve-wracking endeavors. But for fitness and wellness titan Denise Austin, she found the whole experience to be exciting and surprisingly meaningful, thanks to her runway partner, her daughter Katie. "At first, I thought, 'Am I really doing this? Are you kidding me? In a bikini at age 65?' But how exhilarating that was!" she told the New York Post in 2022 soon after the show. "To do this with my daughter made it even more special," she said. "It was the highlight of my life to walk the runway with my daughter. I'm still not over it."

With her popular social media channels and product lines, Austin is still thriving in the fitness industry after nearly four decades of success. For Austin, her many years spent motivating others to move has stemmed from the basic principle of not giving up. She believes that's been the key to her longevity in the fitness industry, as she told the Washington Post in 2010: "Just keep trying. Don't give up. You will hear a million negatives. Make the call yourself, don't rely on other people. No matter how hard it gets, keep pushing ahead because persistence pays off. That's really why I'm a success — because I never gave up."