What’s love got to do with it?

A conversation with Richard Simmons

 Richard Simmons on the unfolding national obesity crisis

Richard Simmons readily admits that he’s a compulsive eater. How could he not be, he jokes, when his very first words were “Béarnaise sauce”? The fitness guru points out that being raised in epicurean New Orleans stamped food with a capital “F” indelibly on his brain. Obese at age 8, he ate his way up to 268 pounds. Now 59 and weighing 148, Simmons is getting political with a capital “P.”

Alarmed by the epidemic of childhood obesity in America, he has catalyzed legislation that would add physical education to the No Child Left Behind federal mandates. Through his Web site and national television appearances, Simmons has launched a campaign to push for passage of the FIT Kids Act (H.R. 3257), currently in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Between exercise, stretching, fitness classes and advocacy, Simmons spoke with the School of Medicine’s Paul Costello about the unfolding national obesity crisis.

Hanoch Piven

Question: Are you astonished by how the food portions have grown in this country?

Simmons: Well, we wanted that. The most popular franchise restaurants in the United States are the ones that serve a baked potato the size of your head and a blooming onion that looks like a newborn child. When people see the portions of food I eat, they think that I’m the new Gandhi. But I have to stay at this weight. I have to fit in those shorts. And they don’t make them anymore. So those little 1982 Dolfin shorts, I’ve got to fit in them.

Q: What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Simmons: I had yogurt, some raw peanuts, my vitamins and three glasses of water.

Q: And for lunch you’ll have?

Simmons: I have a salad for either lunch or dinner every day. That has been my secret. I’m a sandwich person, but anything you put between two slices of bread you can put in a salad. So I’ll have a salad and then tonight I teach a couple classes so I’ll just have some vegetable soup and a couple of pieces of fruit maybe.

Q: On your Web site you say you want to reach parents and children before their fitness fate is sealed. When is that? Is it different for each individual?

Simmons: It is. If you read my message, I talk about what’s in your future. What is your fate if you continue to eat like this and you continue to be inactive? Well, your fate is heart attack or stroke, other medical problems, death. So I’m trying to save them from that.

There are a lot of obesity problems now because of the processed foods that we’ve introduced. And because of the Game Boys and TV, the things that are keeping kids in their houses, not moving. And as you know, there’s hardly any P.E. in the schools anymore and I’m working on changing that.

Q: What are you doing?

Simmons: I put up a questionnaire on the Web site all about P.E.: how many times a week, what do they do, their eating patterns. And I got over 60,000 filled out. From these questionnaires I found out what the problem is. The problem is the No Child Left Behind law introduced by President Bush five years ago. It really emphasized reading, math and science. And out the window went everything else.

So I took all this to Washington and I met with some congressmen. I now have 18 congressmen supporting my bill, which is called H.R. 3257, and it’s trying to get P.E. in the No Child Left Behind law.

Q: It’s easy to blame the victim and to take a look at someone who’s overweight and see a lack of discipline. How responsible are people for their own weight problems?

Simmons: I think our problem is that we have become a very overworked and very tired society. When a man comes home after working two jobs, his first thought is not to get on the treadmill. We’ve just become inactive because if you don’t have a lot of money and you have a lot of bills, you have to work hard and that may take two jobs or three.

Q: Are you hopeful about a solution?

Simmons: Sometimes I sit and ponder this late at night when I can’t sleep: What more could I be doing? What more could I be saying? It’s just that the words of wisdom are now competing with the snake oil salesmen not only in this country but all over the world.

You know, here’s a woman, she’s been on a diet all her life. She’s 48 years old. And they go, why don’t you have this stomach [surgery] thing? Boy, you’ll lose the weight and you’ll wear really pretty clothes and you’ll have more friends and maybe you’ll meet somebody and all the birds in the sky will smile at you.

Q: And do people after surgery find out that the world’s not changed?

Simmons: Yeah. Oh, you don’t know how many people gain their weight back or have other medical problems. And it’s not just that; it’s the diet pills the doctors are still handing out. It’s all of these liquid shakes that you can buy now over the counter.

Q: Over the many years you’ve been doing this, what have you learned about the nature of human beings?

Simmons: People don’t know their worth. That is the biggest problem we have in the United States. We’re walking around like shells. Most people do not believe in themselves and do not care for themselves that much. And until you can like yourself right now, no matter what you weigh, no matter what you drive and no matter where you live, nothing’s going to change.

Q: I’ve always thought of you as this sort of patron saint of non-glamorous people.

Simmons: There’s a song from the The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I really can’t even play it because I get too teary-eyed. It’s called “God Help the Outcasts.” I was an outcast as a child and a teenager and a young adult. And I was an outcast for two reasons: because the world treated me so badly, and because I treated me so badly. When I decided what I wanted to do in my life, which was helping people, I decided that my first lesson would have to be unconditional love. And I would have to love everyone the same. And I would just have to be there for them.

Q: That really comes across.

Simmons: I’m getting too old for this. I sit here and cry, just in a puddle, and I keep on saying: Richard, get up, give another speech, get your cheerleader pompoms and go to work.

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