If ever there was a business with staying power and unlimited upside, it is dieting and fitness, now estimated to have $90 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone, according to a Forbes analysis of IBISWorld data.
America’s biggest health and fitness icons have shown a keen ability to leverage the technology of their day to showcase their own compelling physical transformations – and convince the masses they’re capable of achieving the same.
“What you hear again and again and again is of someone who doesn’t measure up in terms of what we think is fit and beautiful and transforming themselves through exercise,” says Jan Todd, a professor of sports history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Take Bernarr Macfadden, who suffered from tuberculosis as a child in Missouri in the 1860s but reportedly nursed himself back to health by prioritizing nutrition and exercise. He went on to appear on the cover of his wildly popular magazine, Physical Culture.
Given the importance of testimonials and networks, social media has been a game changer. “Customers who get results create demand for our products because they’re walking billboards,” says Beachbody co-founder and CEO Carl Daikeler, who relies on a network of 340,000 independent “coaches” to share their progress on social media.
Here are eight heroes of the body beautiful business:
Bernarr Macfadden (early 1900s)
He launched one of America’s first fitness magazines, Physical Culture, in 1899 and introduced a road map for a healthy lifestyle via proper exercise and nutrition. The first widespread use of before-and-after photographs aided the success of his magazine and book empire, resulting in a fortune reported at $30 million by 1930.
Charles Atlas (1920s-1950s)
This Italian-American bodybuilder went from a self-proclaimed “97-pound runt” to being crowned the “World’s Most Handsome Man” by Physical Culture. By running iconic advertisements in the back pages of comic books, Atlas attracted throngs of teenage boys, promising he could “make a man” out of them. Since 1929 Charles Atlas Ltd. has sold 30 million courses, originally priced at $40 each.
Jack LaLanne (1950s-1980s)
The affable fitness guru became a presence in American homes starting in the 1950s through his nationally broadcast daytime television workouts, which often featured organ music and his dog Happy. After his show aired for 34 years, LaLanne went on to sell electric juice-makers on TV.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (1960s-2000s)
The Austrian-born bodybuilder is credited with popularizing next-level muscularity among men in the 1970s. He parlayed his sculpted physique into becoming one of Hollywood’s top-earning movie stars and ultimately the governor of California.
Jane Fonda (1980s)
After breaking her foot filming 1979’s The China Syndrome, the 44-year-old actress created a string of low-impact, balletic workouts that became a female fitness craze in the 1980s. She sold 17 million copies via VHS tape, riding a boom in VCR purchases.
Richard Simmons (1980s-1990s)
Known for his indefatigable energy and bright ’80s garb, Simmons appealed to overweight and obese Americans through dance workout videos like “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” and “Dance Your Pants Off,” selling more than 20 million copies.
Suzanne Somers (1990s)
The Three’s Company sitcom star became the pitchwoman for the ThighMaster after leaving NBC over a salary dispute, appearing in a string of ’90s infomercials in which she squeezed the device between her bare legs. Late-night spoofs helped generate buzz and $200 million in sales. She went on to sell thousands of items–from jewelry to cosmetics to cleaning supplies–on HSN, QVC and her own website.
Tony Horton (2000s)
The celebrity trainer’s P90X, an extreme 90-day workout program launched in 2005, experienced breakout success after Beachbody infomercial whiz Carl Daikeler packed the ads with unscripted personal testimonials. Celebrity converts like Paul Ryan, Michelle Obama and Sheryl Crow didn’t hurt, either. P90X has sold 6.9 million DVD kits to date.