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Denise Austin On ’80s Nostalgia, Aging, and Her Legacy: “We Need To Bring Fun Back Into Fitness”

The exercise pioneer has been inspiring women to get fit and have fun for four decades.

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Denise Austin has been inspiring women to get fit and have fun for four decades. As one of the key figures of the ’80s aerobics boom, she knows a thing or two about fitness trends and which exercises stand the test of time — and at 65, Austin is still going strong. Her latest project is a 30-minute free workout on her YouTube channel, made in collaboration with SlimFast and inspired by her iconic workouts from the ’80s. “Things are just coming full circle now,” she tells FIRST for Women . “I felt like I was back filming my exercise VHS tapes because I did so many of the same moves.” Here, Austin discusses the reason retro workouts are making a comeback, how her daughter is following in her footsteps, and some ways we can all stay more positive and healthy going into the holiday season.

On ’80s Nostalgia and How Workouts Have Changed

Austin has been delighted to see ’80s workouts making a comeback and getting rediscovered by the younger generations. “I love it. It brings me joy,” she gushes. “The colors are fun, and I have such happy memories of just starting [out].” The decade was a time of playful fashions and poppy music (some of Austin’s favorites were Cyndi Lauper, Donna Summer, and Michael Jackson) — and, as she puts it, “I think we need to bring more fun back into the world of fitness. We were always smiling. We need that right now. It’s the perfect time to bring it all back.”

Working out has changed a bit since then; women now wear sleek Lululemon leggings and play their own Spotify music via headphones at the gym, whereas “it was ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and leg warmers when I started in the early ’80s, and aerobics had just started getting popular,” Austin recalls. “So, things are very different now. But in the same way, people just wanted to feel good and move, exercise, and get some energy. And that’s always stayed the same throughout my 40 years in the fitness industry. People still want to have fun and enjoy fitness, but not do anything that’s too much.”

Austin points out that exercise has become even more valuable in today’s tech-obsessed world. “Movement really helps with your mind,” she notes. “With the phones and all the social media, it’s totally switched our thinking. We need to get outside of our environment and enjoy life and not be so worried about social media all the time. That’s why I think the nostalgic part of the retro workout is so fun — because it takes you away from all that.” 

On Daughter Katie Following in Her Footsteps

Denise’s 29-year-old daughter, Katie Austin, is now a fitness guru in her own right; she has her own workout programs and an active social media presence. Katie can also be seen in the new SlimFast workout video, cheerfully moving alongside her mom. Katie may be a ’90s kid, but she appreciates her mom’s ’80s legacy, and has even posted some cute TikTok videos in which she poses in Denise’s old workout clothes. “I saved everything,” explains Austin. “My workout leotards, my leg warmers, everything. I’m so happy I saved them. I have duffle bags filled with all that stuff. Katie finds great joy in that.”

Katie was long destined to be in the fitness industry. “I have two daughters,” Austin shares. “My oldest is Kelly, and she’s not as interested in this; she’s more spiritual and into mental health. But Katie, even when she was a little girl, like 3 years old, would stand behind the cameras, and be doing it with me.” Katie pursued athletics in college before deciding she wanted to work in fitness. “I’m just so proud,” Austin says. “I love what she’s doing.” When they work out together, “It doesn’t feel like work, and it keeps me young.” 

Katie and Denise Austin posing in red one-piece outfits during filming of SlimFast workout
Like mother, like daughter: Katie and Denise Austin during the filming of their SlimFast workout video.Courtesy of SlimFast

On Her Favorite — and Least Favorite — Exercise

Austin has done all the exercise moves you can think of — but what does she like best? “My all-time favorite exercise would have to be something to do with the tummy, because it’s the center of your whole body and your abs are what keeps your spine healthy,” Austin says. Her favorite move for that area is a dance-like twist, which you can see in her early videos from the ’80s. “Anything with a twist, I love,” she proclaims. Her least favorite move? Understandably, the tricky push-up/leap hybrids known as burpees.

Austin has always been an advocate of integrating movement into your life in a casual way, and she insists that you don’t need a professional set-up to get a good workout in. “I do push-ups against a kitchen counter or my dining room table,” she says. “I make my life easy. I don’t try to overdo anything. I try to keep the fitness part very simplified, and not overthink it. I tell people ‘you could do leg lifts right in your kitchen, because your muscles don’t know if you’re in a fancy gym or right there in your house.’”

On Staying Fit While Aging

Austin believes that hearty exercise can be incorporated into your lifestyle at any age. “We’re all aging, so I want people to feel as though they’re never too old to begin,” she declares. “There are little things that you can do that aren’t that hard to make yourself feel better. A walk is a wonderful thing to do, just to get the muscles going.” She’s also a passionate advocate for talking about aging in a more affirmative light: “People are so worried about how they’re aging,” she says. “But if you change your thinking to say, ‘Hey, I’m alive, I want to move, I want to do things,’ that’s the way to think.” 

On Looking at Life in a Positive Light

One of Austin’s best-known qualities is her infectious positive energy. When asked about how she remains in such an optimistic mind-frame, she explains, “I am grateful every day. I truly believe in having a healthy mind and body, and I think exercise helps get rid of stress and tension.” Looking back at her long career clearly provides Austin with plenty of fulfillment, too: “I believe what I’ve been doing all these years really did pay off,” she says. “When you’re grateful you don’t have time to be grouchy.” Austin’s penchant for celebrating the little wins in life and not letting the failures get to her might be genetic, as she also credits her mother for her upbeat attitude. “She was always really positive and found joy in the little things in life, and I think I take after her,” she muses.

While working out can be intimidating — particularly if you don’t do it regularly — Austin believes that you shouldn’t let that hold you back. “Even 10 minutes of movement will help your mind and body, anything to get up and get the circulation going,” she recommends. “Try not to sit for so long. Enjoy what you do, and it will never feel like you’re working.” Clearly, whether you’re following a neon-tinged ’80s workout or a minimalist modern one, the most important thing is that you take pleasure in the moves. Maybe with the right attitude, we could all feel (and look!) as good as Austin.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Woman’s World.

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