I was too busy rounding up quarters to feed the parking meter Saturday morning to join the warm-up routine led by fitness guru Tony Horton. Besides, I was plenty warm enough as the temperature in downtown D.C. already registered a steamy 82 degrees as the National Press Club's annual Beat the Deadline 5K got underway. I heard Horton ask how many participants have his P90X program, and a good many hands went up among the hundred or so runners stretching and limbering up, doing what we used to call calisthenics before fitness became a multibillion-dollar industry
Horton was in Washington to promote his exercise regimen, which has a following among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and to make inroads with a military that is facing a fitness crisis of its own. I spoke with Horton Thursday morning after he wrapped up a 7 a.m. session in the congressional gym with a couple dozen members of Congress. "Senator Thune [R-S.D.] was front and center," Horton reported. "He's very fit and committed to health." Thune is a rumored 2012 presidential contender, and would need stamina for the campaign trail.
In addition to cardio, resistance training and stretching, Horton's program incorporates yoga, which he told me the politicians don't much like. "They can't score any points" with that, he said, then hastened to add there are no politics in what he advocates -- that exercising to his DVDs
"creates camaraderie and a mild competition." Horton credits Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Democrat Heath Shuler (N.C.), a former football player, for getting the craze started on Capitol Hill. They had been doing the hour-long workout routines in a corner of the House gym, generating enough interest that pull-up bars have now been installed to assist in the workouts, and the gym rewired with overhead TV screens.
Horton developed his 90-day "muscle confusion" path to fitness after working with a variety of celebrities, from sports figures to musicians and actors. "When you're dealing with people at this level, they want the latest and the best and the fastest," he explained. Muscle confusion is the term he coined for mixing up the workout so the body doesn't get accustomed to any one routine, and so celebrities wouldn't get bored. He has trained an eclectic group of clients: Sean Connery, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Shirley MacLaine, Allison Janney and Rob Lowe, to name a few.
"Looking good is important," he said, "but when you're a rocker like Tom Petty and Bruce, you need strength and flexibility and durability to go on tour." Horton calls this0 "functional fitness," and it's qualitatively different from how fast you can run two miles, or how many sit-ups and push-ups you can do, which is how the military measures fitness.
He's made some inroads with the military trying to get the services to incorporate his routines and update how they view fitness. Brig. Gen. Steven Shepro, the commanding officer at Andrews Air Force base
outside Washington, first started using P90X when he was in Afghanistan, and at Andrews he took down tennis nets and uses the courts to put base personnel through their P90X paces.
The stats show that military fitness has deteriorated along with that of the general population. In April, a panel of retired military officers issued a report titled "Too Fat to Fight
," which called the trend a threat to national security. It found that too many extra pounds are the leading medical reason that 40 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in 39 states had been rejected for military service. A decade ago, only one state, Kentucky, reached that dismal threshold. Each year, over 10,000 servicemen and women are mustered out of the military before the one-year mark because they are overweight or obese, meaning their body mass index is too high or they fail routine physical training tests.
Horton thinks he can help the military shape up with his special blend of exercises that don't require a lot of room or fancy equipment, just some exercise bands and a pull-up bar.
"It's taken me 26 years to come up with this," he says. It helps that Horton, 52, is a walking advertisement for what he advocates. The word to describe his physique is "ripped." Lean and fit with no discernible body fat, his muscles have clear definition, but he's not big like a bodybuilder.
Not since the Jane Fonda workout tapes back in the '70s has a fitness routine hit the jackpot to this extent. Horton's infomercial drums up robust sales, and he attributes that success to the fact that his program is sound, that it can be modified for different levels of fitness, and that humor is part of his motivational appeal. "I'm not a drill sergeant," he says. He originally went to Los Angeles wanting to be a stand-up comic, and when that didn't happen for him, he gravitated toward fitness.
He still seems a little amazed that he broke through in a crowded field with a product that boils down to "hard work and eating right." It's hard for baby boomers to remember, but there was a time when gyms promoting fitness were rare and people didn't work at getting fit the way they do today. The pioneers in the field were Joe Gold, founder of the original Gold's Gym in Venice Beach, Calif., which Arnold Schwarzenegger frequented in 1965, and Jack LaLanne, the godfather of fitness who, at 95, is still active and promoting healthy living and eating.
America's fascination with fitness comes in waves. "I'm the present wave," Horton said with a laugh, acknowledging his debt to those who went before him as he anticipates spreading the fitness gospel to legions more of eager and overweight consumers.