When you meet Mary Ann Wilson, it’s hard to believe this shy woman has for nearly 30 years led a fitness revolution from a chair in the KSPS public television studio on the South Hill.
Wilson, a registered nurse, is the creator of “Sit and Be Fit” – a half-hour medically based exercise program focusing on slow, gentle movement for older adults. All the exercises can be done from a chair.
Today it airs on more than 220 PBS stations to more than 86 million U.S. households annually, and Wilson has become a beloved fitness icon for people of all ages who enjoy her kind, soft voice and easy-to-do yet effective exercises. Children are said to love “Sit and Be Fit,” too, often dancing to the music and moves when the show comes on after morning cartoons.
Wilson, who declined to give her age, saying it would “ruin the magic,” admits she is older than a baby boomer. She became a fitness junkie after her husband died, leaving her with four children younger than age 9. Daily aerobics classes were her “place of sanity.” Yet even then, at the height of the ’80s aerobics craze, Wilson didn’t like the fast, jerky movements and the need to push to exhaustion. Too shy to lead her own class, it took Wilson several years to collect the courage to teach.
“I was never Jane Fonda,” said Wilson, her bright eyes twinkling like they do on camera. The woman really does appear more like a Sunday school teacher than a fitness pioneer decked out in bright-colored exercise clothes and sneakers.
“I had a moderate program before we even had low-impact,” Wilson said.
She noticed that people were alert, relaxed and refreshed after her classes, not exhausted and hurting like the others. Aerobics landed her regularly in the physical therapy office and Wilson would pepper them with questions on how to make her routines better. Soon she was consulting with therapists, doctors and exercise physiologists to make her classes as safe and effective as possible.
“I really was before my time,” she said in a moment of assertiveness.
It’s this stealth, lady-like assertiveness – and a batch of asparagus soup – that made Wilson a television star. She was seeing such good results with her gentle exercise class that she knew she needed to share it with more people. That meant television. So she pushed her comfort zone and started going to every TV station in town to pitch her fitness class with a homemade video showing an example of her idea.
She said the station managers gave her the “Ahhh, that’s nice” response then ushered her out the door. Bill Stanley of KSPS thought the idea was interesting and promised to talk with the production crew. Wilson was persistent, visiting every month. Finally after nine months, she invited him to lunch and made him her special asparagus soup. He caved and asked if she could do 30 shows in the following two weeks.
A near impossible task, Wilson happily agreed and then scrambled trying to get the show together, often only getting two hours of sleep each night. That first year in 1987, “Sit and Be Fit” was picked up by at least 34 stations, guaranteeing a second season. It was instantly popular.
But season two was delayed because Wilson was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, so debilitated and depressed she used a wheelchair and stayed at home. That is until she watched herself on TV and heard hear voice repeat a “Sit and Be Fit” mantra “If you can just roll your shoulder, you can do something.” It worked. Just like her often chair-bound viewers, Wilson began rehabilitating herself by watching her own exercise show. Working on gently moving her body, improving her posture and building strength.
“It was God’s ironic sense of humor,” said Wilson, nearly 30 years later and showing no signs of her illness. “I really could feel what people were talking about. It was a shift in my quality of life.”
Since the show began airing, Wilson receives a constant stream of fan mail, praising the show and highlighting how it has improved viewers’ health. She also gets kudos from doctors, physical therapists and activity directors at assisted living facilities. “Sit and Be Fit” has a loyal following.
Wilson makes sure that she and her staff try to respond to as many cards and letters as possible, and that a friendly human answers the phone when people call the program’s toll-free number. She even researches questions from viewers if they need help finding exercises for certain conditions.
“Sit and Be Fit” produces a newsletter and runs an active website where people can watch previous episodes and order from Wilson’s large selection of DVDs. The site also provides fitness tips and exercises for specific health conditions, from arthritis and Parkinson ’s disease to hip and knee replacements and urinary incontinence.
A woman named Betty from Fowlervitte, Michigan, wrote that her doctor asked what she’s been doing differently as her blood pressure improved from her last yearly checkup. “The only difference was that I had been exercising with ‘Sit and Be Fit’ daily for about 3 months. She said to keep up the good work. A week later I received the results of the blood work and another pleasant surprise, my cholesterol count was 180; down from 207 last year.”
In another testimonial, Maggie Konkle from San Antonio wrote that “Sit and Be Fit” changed her life. “I will be 75 next month, have had eight children and have advanced glaucoma. … I ‘shuffled’ around thinking it was my eyes and it was my muscles! Now, I walk straight, sit straight, walk faster and am not so afraid to go places. I can’t tell you how much you are doing for people of ALL ages and conditions … I’m becoming a nuisance to my friends because I rave and rave about your classes all the time to them. Thank you, thank you. Your class is the most important thing in my life.”
“These stories fill your heart,” said Wilson, using the moment to stump for the importance of free, public television and the “Sit and Be Fit” mission of providing people access to free exercise every day in their own home – exercise that keeps them functional and slows the aging process.
“Sit and Be Fit” became a nonprofit in 2000 and Wilson has refused to “sell out” numerous times because she wants the program to remain accessible, free and without commercials or product endorsements. Yet, as with all public television shows, fundraising is a challenge. The continued positive response from viewers keeps Wilson and her tiny staff, which includes daughter Gretchen Wilson Paukert, going.
Paukert produces and directs the show and helps with media requests and answering questions from viewers. She now appears on the show with her mother. Wilson’s grandchildren also have worked on the show.
So when might Wilson retire? “When she drops dead,” Paukert said.
In August, the “Sit and Be Fit” production crew spent four weeks taping the 2015 season. Wilson nervously practiced her lines as the makeup artist touched up her foundation and then glued the cord of the ear piece to the back of her neck.
Soon, Wilson was in her chair, set on the stage that Paukert paints in swirls of pastels every season, preparing for a segment on feet. Pictures of smiling babies are taped in front of the stage, a cute reminder for Wilson to smile while looking at the three cameras.
Paukert peered at the monitors in the control room, concentrating on how to avoid a seam in the stage floor that barely showed during the foot close ups. Another staffer noticed Wilson needed more makeup on her heels. They were too pale compared to her arch. So much work and detail for a television show that appears so simple and bare on air. Just a woman, her chair and perhaps an exercise ball.
The show is laboriously scripted and choreographed. Before moving into the KSPS studio for filming, the team videos practice runs at the office to perfect the timing and the script.
“Mom is a very shy person,” Paukert said. “This is extremely outside her comfort zone. This is a big deal for her. But she’s so natural and lovely once she gets going.”
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