Richard Simmons is more than a fabulous pair of tiny shorts; he's a political activist. The man who encouraged you to sweat to the oldies and dance your pants off is passionate about physical education in schools. A New Orleans native (he often discusses his muffuletta-induced childhood weight of 268 pounds), Simmons now lives in California and spends 200 days a year on the road motivating adults and schoolchildren to get in shape. Recently, however, Simmons has been spending time in Washington, D.C. to pass the FIT Kids Act, which would require 150 to 225 minutes of physical education in schools every week. Last July, Simmons testified on the hill before the Education and Labor Committee in support of FIT Kids, and right now he's working on organizing a senate hearing.
Q: People know you as a fitness guru, not a lobbyist. How did you get involved with the FIT Kids Act?
A: About five years ago my mail started to change, my email. I was getting letters from parents who were concerned about their kids' weight and cholesterol. Well, when the No Child Left Behind Act was started, they took out P.E. and recess. ... I decided to change that. I was invited to Washington to meet Congressman Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) and Congressman Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.). We worked on a bill called the FIT Kids Act. It's a way of getting kids in every school to move every day. The kid that moves is the kid that learns.
Q: What was your physical education like growing up in New Orleans?
A: I didn't get a physical education. They played sports at Cor Jesu they call it Brother Martin now and the captains stood around and said, "I'll take Bob, I'll take Bob." I was always last. I was overweight and lethargic. The only exercise I ever got was opening a jar of mayo that was too tight. There will always be sports, but there have to be alternatives. The creating of a plan putting fitness in a more palatable and fun way is so important. The kids will go into a noncompetitive environment to learn ways to move and get fit. That's where the cardio, the toning and the stretching come in. We all need cardio, we all need strength training, and we all need stretching.
Q: You actually testified before a congressional committee in July. What was that audience like compared to your usual crowd?
A: People are people. Behind every person is a child; we just look a little older. I put on a suit and tie real clothes and I walked in there and I spoke from my heart. I spoke from being someone who was overweight as a kid in New Orleans. Everyone in there really felt the passion. I'll beg and grovel until this gets done. Everybody was so nice to me.
Q: If you were mayor of this town, what would you do to encourage fitness?
A: I think we need to get our public school system in line here and really focus on education. Part of that is physical fitness. Kids used to go home after school and play in the yard or the streets. As you know, that's pretty dangerous. A lot of parents are hesitant to let their kids do that. So the physical fitness has to be in the schools.
The mayor could use the school in the evening to teach classes to the parents. Because we know if the kid is overweight, the mother and father are more likely to be obese. My plan is, if I can get the kids moving at school, they will go home and, in turn, motivate their parents.
New Orleans has been through so much. My brother evacuated for both hurricanes and lost everything in the first. There's been so much stress. Where there is stress, there is gumbo and fried oyster po-boys. I know, I grew up there and I love the food.
Q: Do the kids recognize you when you visit schools to teach?
A: They see me, kids, little kids, and recognize me from (their) mom's DVD. It's great. I take music they listen to and make it fun so they can connect. I take Pink's new one, the Britney Spears, the Jordan Whatever-Her-Name-Is from American Idol and I put it on a CD. Then I teach them a class with some aerobics, with some cardio.
You see them having fun. The blood's flowing. And you know when the blood's flowing to their brains, they learn better. We've seen studies of this. We all know this. There can't be a congressman or senator or presidential candidate who doesn't know this, but it's not getting done. I'll keep going until it's done.
Q: Any plans to run for office?
A: No, no. My brother worked for the city government for 20-some-odd years. I'm better as a lay person, speaking as a lay person for the people. I can go on talk shows and Good Morning America and the Today Show.
Q: How often do you get back to New Orleans?
A: The last time was November, December of last year. ... When I come back, I can't wait to go to Arnaud's and Drago's to have my charbroiled oysters. But I will enjoy it in moderation. I have to fit into this little tank top and shorts.