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Denise Austin is still going strong

By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Most people greet strangers with a "pleased to meet you." Denise Austin prefers a more direct approach: "Touch my tummy."

The fitness guru who has peddled 20 million workout videos and DVDs, written a library of books and spent 21 years hosting her own TV show welcomed me into her Alexandria home with that line, and of course, I obliged. My finger reached out and connected with the firmest substance I'd ever encountered.

"How many people have done that to you?" I needed to know. "Oh, thousands. Presidents, CEOs," she said, beginning with Bryant Gumbel, when she was the fitness correspondent on "Today" from 1984 to 1988. Jealous after getting a feel of Austin's stomach, he warned her, "Wait until you have kids."

Even more impressive than her tight tummy is that at 52, the mom of two girls -- ages 16 and 18 -- is still a powerful force in the youth-obsessed fitness field. She has just released two more DVDs as well as a new book, "Denise's Daily Dozen" (Center Street), which features a program promoting 12 one-minute exercises for every day of the week along with a meal plan and loads of lists about de-stressing, rewarding hard work healthily, boosting your energy and more.

But Austin wanted to draw my attention to her latest project: a freshly baked loaf of pumpkin bread. I wasn't about to turn that offer down, and the scent wafting from the kitchen gave me an excuse to ask: "Can I look inside your fridge?" She opened the stainless-steel door to reveal precisely the grocery list she recommends in the book: bags of leafy greens, a rotisserie chicken, sliced fruit. "I was sort of hoping to see just a six-pack of beer," I told her.

"We have that, too! Everything in moderation," she said, dragging me outside for a peek at the back yard.

There's a gorgeous sunken tennis court, which makes sense, given that her husband, Jeff, a lawyer, was once a pro (and his sister Tracy Austin won the U.S. Open). Next to that is a pool and a grassy area, where Austin sometimes films outdoor segments. The blond California girl has lived on the East Coast for decades, but that doesn't stop her from making her workouts alfresco as often as possible. Upstairs, there's a balcony off the family gym, and whenever the weather cooperates, Austin drags her weights out there, and sometimes even her stationary bike.

So why is she in Washington, far from the nation's fitness capitals of Los Angeles and New York? "I'm just a mom around here," she said. While work takes her to the West Coast about once a month, she can manage most business from her home office and still be around to cook dinner for the family.

Austin is rarely recognized, except, she admitted, "when I open my mouth." Fans who hear her distinctive voice immediately parrot back their favorite Austin-isms, including "If you rest, you'll rust," and "If you don't squeeze your butt, no one will."

She really says phrases like that. "None of it's scripted," she said of the nonstop talk during her workouts. "I'm thinking, 'I'd love to know why I'm doing this.' . . . We all need motivation."

Yes, even Austin has days when she just wants to sink into the couch. But to keep her 100 percent natural looks (She can still furrow her brow!), she knows she has to work at it. "Strength training is the key to fighting the aging process. Nothing can droop or sag if you're firm," she said. She's unapologetic about her appetite for dessert and for the Idaho potatoes she's always hawking on TV, but her diet has changed over the years to incorporate flax seed, lentils and quinoa.

After all, in 30 years in the industry, including a stint as The Post's fitness columnist in the late 1980s, Austin has learned more than how to do a crunch. She's constantly monitoring the latest research and calling her buddies from her two terms on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "I've been saying Vitamin D to people for the last three years," she said.

Her best resource also happens to be her role model: Jack LaLanne. The 95-year-old gave Austin her start on "The Jack LaLanne Show" in 1981, and they still chat regularly. Whenever he sees her, he asks her to feel his legs.

So maybe Austin will still be using that tummy line in 40 years. (Meanwhile, she's planning a new television show and promoting DeniseAustin.com, with no sign of retirement.) "I love to know I'm helping people," she said. "Why would I quit that?"

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