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Interview with Kathy Smith

The words "role model" and "inspiration" sound much too fuddy-duddy to describe statuesque, blonde Kathy Smith. But as America's leading fitness and nutrition expert, they happen to be right-on. Smith's technique goes far beyond just the physical; with her vital approach, she creates overall changes in attitude and well-being.
Something of an infomerical queen, she's produced and starred in twenty best-selling exercise videos, with over seven million copies snapped up. But that's not all: Smith, 44, is an inventor, too, with her Air Bench step trainer that makes stepping more fun. She's also co-developer of Kathy Smith Fit-Caps, a line of additive-free vitamins.
Former "Today Show" health-and-fitness correspondent, Smith parlayed her ubiquitous "Walkfit" fitness/nutrition-and-weight management system into an audiocassette and book, "Kathy Smith's Walkfit for a Better Body" (Warner Books). Her newest book, due out January 1997, is "Kathy Smith's Fitness Makeovers" (Warner), a 10-week guide to exercise and nutrition. Now she's even developing her own magazine.
The striking Smith - 5' 9," 135 lbs. - is committed to teaching people how to live healthier lives. And indeed she practices exactly what she preaches. Her newest workouts on video, available in November, are two from her "Kathy Smith Functionally Fit Series," one called "The Fat-Burning Interval," the other, "Lower-Body Firming."
We caught up with the no-nonsense masterful muscle maven one recent afternoon.

JR: How did you become a fitness expert?

KS: My father died of a heart attack when I was 17; two-and-a-half years later, I lost my mother in a plane crash. It was a very depressing time for me, and that's when I started running and doing aerobics. In college, I attended clinics given by a doctor who was working with marathon runners who'd had heart attacks but were on the road to recovery. I was drawn to what he was doing with these men and was excited about how running and aerobics were changing my outlook on life.

I started working on a second college degree, studying dance kinesiology and exercise physiology, plus nutrition. When I got to Los Angeles in the mid-70s, I began taking exercise classes at Body Design by Gilda, where Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda went. I noticed the classes were missing one big component — aerobics to get your heart rate up. So I took from my dance experience and my cardio experience and developed routines for movement and raising the heart rate. I went through a program at UCLA and then got certified with IDEA and AFA as a fitness trainer.

JR:How, specifically, did running change your outlook on life?

KS:It helped me discover who I was and brought up my confidence level. It helped me sort out my life at a time when I wasn't sure whether I wanted to continue college. When, out of nowhere, you lose both your parents, you realize that life can be taken away in an instant. All of a sudden, long-term planning seems out of the question. It was a very confusing time, and running really helped clear my mind and get me focused. It also helped me deal with pain. When you're training for a marathon, you go out for an hour or an hour-and-a-half run. You're by yourself, so there's a lot of time to think. It was an amazing experience, and that's what really hooked me on wanting to be in this profession.

JR:What clinched it?

KS:When I first started teaching classes, the feedback I'd get from people about their life changes was fantastic. When you begin to take care of yourself, it builds confidence. It helps you get control of your life when your life seems out of control. Then you find it transfers to other parts of your life as well. I see it over and over again. People say to me, “I stayed in high school because of you. I was going to drop out, but I got your poster that says, `Believe in yourself' and I started doing your tapes and I realized that I could be somebody.” Exercise, health and well-being have to do with the total person. I always try to get the message across that it's a bigger picture than just trying to lose five pounds.

JR:What's the biggest challenge in your work?

KS:You have to get people motivated: part of that is learning to understand how they think. The thing is, how do you get them out there doing it? I give a speech called, “What's Your Excuse?” What's your excuse for not fighting back against stress? What's your excuse for not taking better care of your health? What's your excuse for not maintaining your self esteem?

JR:Talk about the importance of the need to be in shape, whether you are able-bodied or have a disability.

KS:The government this year came out with guidelines that say every adult American should be doing some sort of physical activity thirty minutes a day. Study after study has shown that exercise helps improve the quality of life. It helps you live longer. It helps prevent heart disease. It helps lower blood pressure. It helps prevent diabetes. It helps prevent osteoporosis. And the list goes on and on.

If you're in a wheelchair, it's even more important because you might not be benefiting from weight-bearing types of activities that some people get just by walking around the office. It then becomes important that you strengthen and tone your muscles so they don't atrophy. We start to lose muscle mass after age 25. So you start to lose muscle, your metabolism goes down — and what does that mean? It means that everybody starts to gain a little weight as they get older. Therefore, it's important for everybody to stay active.

JR:What, specifically, should people using wheelchairs do?

KS:If you can't use your legs, there are upper-body workouts you can do. When I broke my leg rollerblading four years ago, I was still in the gym three times a week getting a great cardiovascular upper-body workout. I was positioned on machines in such a way that I could do lower-body strengthening workouts, too. This is when we have to get creative and find ways to workout.

JR:What's your daily exercise advice, in general?

KS:Vary your workouts because the muscles adapt very quickly to what you're doing. If you're doing the same thing as you were two years ago, then your body's not responding in the same way. You either have to increase the intensity, or you have to increase the time span. Probably the most fun thing to do is to change the activity for a while.

JR:Wat's the best way to prevent injury during workouts?

KS:Always go in cautiously when you start an exercise program and realize that if you are new to this, you're not going to change everything in the first week. Start out slowly. Try to underestimate what you can do as opposed to overestimate. It depends how sedentary you've been. Do 10 or 15 minutes of something and start to build on it. The first day, go out and walk 15 minutes. Start gradually.

JR:What should you do if you become injured by overdoing it?

KS:It's hard to generalize, of course. But people forget about how important icing is. Athletes and people in the fitness industry live for ice. They ice everything. When you feel, “Oh, maybe I pushed it a little too hard today,” take an ice pack out as soon as you get home and ice the area. Ice is a kind of miracle for taking away soreness or tightness that might occur in your lower back.

JR:What are the daily activities that should be on everyone's must-do list?

KS:The three biggest components you want to think about are cardio-respiratory training (which would be aerobics), strength training and stretching. You want to get in strength training a minimum of twice a week for the major muscle groups. I recommend stretching every day after your work-out.

JR:Tell me about your new videos that focus on functional strength.

KS:It's exercises that use movements incorporating all your leg muscles. They are very new moves developed by a physical therapist in Washington State: bending and reaching-type exercises that really pull in all the muscle groups of your lower body. It takes 15 minutes to do them, and the results are remarkable.

JR:What tips do you have on nutrition?

KS:Think fiber: fruits and vegetables. Everybody needs more in their diet. Think about five fruits and vegetables a day. Find where the hidden fats are. Keep a diary for a week and buy a fat-gram book. Notice how many fat grams you're getting through the course of a week. I keep my fat grams to about 35-40 a day, which is very do-able. It's not do-able, though, if you're eating a lot of fried foods or Snickers.

Basically, fat and fiber are the big areas you need to look at and also eating well-balanced meals.

People on-the-go say they don't have time to eat right. The trick is to be prepared. The way to eat right is to think ahead. Nobody can make decisions when they're starving, when it's four in the afternoon and there's only a vending machine around. So you need to prepare the night before and pack yourself a little snack. Buy some frozen soups. You can heat them up in five minutes and have them with crackers. There are great morning cereals, like instant oatmeal. If you have to run out of the house and be at the office, you can pack some of those and take them with you.

JR:And finally, would you repeat what you told USA Today about your own attitude toward eating veggies?

JR:I . . . love broccoli, carrots, asparagus and greens. I dislike okra, but I like her as a talk-show host!

JR:Thank you, Kathy Smith!

by Jane Wollman Rusoff