EVER SINCE Jane Fonda first began working out on video in our living rooms in 1982, she has been America's fitness guru.
She seems to have always been a quicker study than most of us, recognizing the need for a healthy body when she became an actress more than 30 years ago and, as she puts it, "appearance became more important."
Not only have we wanted to look like her, we've also wanted to feel as good as she said she felt.
"I never could understand why after a long 15-hour day on the sound stage everyone would be real tired," she said in an interview. "Instead of going home I'd go to dance class and study ballet for a few hours and at the end of that I would feel so great, like I just had a good night's sleep.
"Thirty years later, I understand that when you're exercising strenuously, a chemical is released in the body called endorphin, which gives you a natural high. It also helps relieve stress, fatigue and depression."
Fonda, in New York recently to promote her 12th workout video, said it wasn't difficult to pinpoint the thrust of "Jane Fonda's Lean Routine."
The prevalence of studies showing that the number of overweight Americans is increasing even though people are more aware about fitness and health than ever before revealed a major need: the public is obviously confused about how to apply principles of nutrition and about exercise's impact on weight loss.
"I hadn't yet done a 60-minute aerobic program using interval training, which is now considered the best way to burn fat," she said, referring to a system where a few minutes of light exercise are interspersed with periods of intense exercise.
"If we're asking people to do that, we also have to tell them that exercise goes hand in glove with proper eating and dieting. And that doesn't mean crash diets, which are totally counterproductive. I wanted to explain how to eat and diet properly so that you really are getting on a lifelong program and not just a roller coaster ride."
On the video Fonda discusses, among other things, why aerobics is considered the safest and most effective way to burn calories, how weight control is fat control, the advantages of healthy living and guidelines for good eating habits.
"The guidelines are nothing I invented," she said, adding that she follows simple keys to responsible eating cutting down on fat and laying off sauces, cookies and other goodies.
"All the experts, the surgeon general, the American Heart Association, basically say the same thing," she said. "The major percentage of your diet should be complex carbohydrates." That means fresh fruit and vegetables and grains.
Since the key to weight control is fat control, a good way to reduce your fat intake is to eat more fruits and vegetables, since most people get their daily calories from the dairy and meat groups.
Some other tips given in the video include reducing animal foods, using nonfat or low-fat dairy products, eating a good breakfast, reducing sugar calories, making dinner the smallest meal of the day, reading labels carefully and eating healthy snacks.
And what does Fonda eat instead of a candy bar for a quick pick-me-up?
"When I'm hungry to snack, I'll eat a sweet potato that I've microwaved," she said.
"They're delicious, very satisfying and non-fattening. I also stay away from red meat and eat chicken and fish. You can eat quite a bit and feel real good about what you're eating and be eating a low-fat diet. That's true for everyone, and you'll live longer on top of it."
Fonda weighs "somewhere between 120 and 123," and said she's in better shape now than when she was 20. "I have more muscle now. I have much less fat and I'm healthier and fitter. When I was 20 I weighed 115 but I was fatter."
In response to questions about the effectiveness of programs like Weight Watchers, Fonda said, "I think any of those kinds of programs are extremely good for people who need to be monitored and need to be very specifically told how much to eat and weigh."
"In this day and age," she added, "food has become an enemy."