Lecture: Bonnie Prudden Fitness Pioneer and Mid-century Wellness Icon
Imagine what your Grandparents thought regarding fitness and workout fashions in the 1950’s. Bonnie Prudden helped set them straight about what a difference proper exercise, strength and flexibility can make. An American physical fitness pioneer, her report to Eisenhower on the unfitness of American children led to the formation of the President's Council on Youth Fitness. Prudden authored 16 books, was a regular in the press, on radio, TV and lectured all over the country. Enid Whitaker her business partner and keeper of her legacy will talk about the life of Bonnie (ultimately a Tucsonan) and the importance of continuing her teaching. The Gallery 2Sun will exhibit photos of projects in the mid-century she created to inspire people to be more fit and to be in tune with the times.
Join Enid Whitaker, Bonnie Prudden's long-term business associate and friend who will share first hand accounts and explore the history of this this remarkable Fitness Pioneer and Mid-century Wellness Icon , her methodology and the way she changed how Americans move forever.
Starting in the 1940’s, Bonnie Prudden took to the neighborhoods, the lecture circuit, books, radio, TV, heck even directly to the President of the United States to share the message that Americans were progressively unfit and headed for disaster if they did not strengthen their bodies. Prudden authored 16 books on physical fitness and Myotherapy for all ages and abilities including two best sellers, How to Keep Slender and Fit After Thirty (1961) and Pain Erasure: The Bonnie Prudden Way (1980). She produced six exercise albums, hosted the first regular exercise spots on national television, had a syndicated television show, and wrote a column for Sports Illustrated. Schools, prisons, summer camps, factories, hospitals, clubs, YMCAs, universities, geriatric homes and facilities for the physically and emotionally challenged all used and benefited from the many physical fitness programs she provided for them. Prudden also designed the first fitness fashions and developed numerous pieces of exercise equipment that could be built in the average garage and used by the family.
Already an accomplished modern dancer, mountain climber and intense ski instructor, Prudden was not your typical American housewife. In the winter of 1937 she badly fractured her pelvis in a skiing accident, which was followed by three months in traction and a doctors’ prediction that she would always limp, would no longer be able to ski, climb, dance, or be able to have children. Nevertheless, daughters were born in 1939 and 1943 and a 7 decade career around strength and flexibility ensued. She rehabilitated herself with chair exercise and aqua-exercise to music. Prudden went on to become the first woman to hold a National Ski Patrol Badge, and formed the first dry ski club in the country. It was for children eight to eighteen and became the basis for the first Jr. Ski Patrols. Over eleven years she taught 1,000 children ages eight to eighteen without even one fracture.
After watching very lackluster instruction at her daughter’s gym class in 1947, she started Conditioning Classes for her two daughters and ten neighborhood children. In a matter of weeks the class had grown to 75. The schools offered their gyms as long as she accepted all applicants. To gauge the effectiveness of her program she borrowed and applied to practical use a fitness test devised by Hans Kraus (a mountaineering partner) and Sonja Weber of New York Presbyterian Hospital. The Kraus-Weber Test involved six simple movements and took 90 seconds to administer. To her surprise the new students failed the test at 58% while the students who had been in the program failed at only 8%. For the next seven years Prudden and her volunteers tested 4,458 children between the ages of 6 and 16 in the United States. The failure rate was 56.6%. While climbing in Europe, Prudden and Kraus arranged to test children in Europe. In Italy, Austria and Switzerland, the children tested exhibited only an eight percent failure rate.
Prudden bought an empty elementary school in White Plains, NY in 1954 and after renovating it opened The Institute for Physical Fitness. It housed three gyms, two dance studios, a Finnish sauna, a medical unit, two massage rooms, lockers, showers and an office. Taking classes barefoot was a requirement. Equipment, painted in bright colors, was designed after curbs, boulders, fences, railroad tracks, and walls of a less mechanized day. Chinning bars were built in every doorway. Every child used the 42 stairs between basement and top floor for conditioning, discipline and special muscle building. Outside was an obstacle course, that included America’s first climbing wall, cargo nets, hurdles, parallel bars, ladders, ramps, balance maze, tightrope, slalom poles and a rappel roof.
In 1955, armed with statistics and a personal invitation to the Eisenhower White House, Bonnie Prudden presented her findings on the fitness level of American public school children compared to that of their peers in Europe. This became known as The Report that Shocked the President or the Shape of the Nation and was the beginning of a change in American attitudes toward physical fitness.
From 1957 through 1960 Bonnie served as a columnist for Sports Illustrated introducing her fitness program and appearing on the cover in a full length leotard of her own design. Fitness fashions were born. Attracted by the fitness fashions The Home Show with Arlene Frances and Hugh Downs, booked her for a weekly family fitness TV spot. She moved to the Today Show with Dave Garroway for two and a half years. She left the show when they started advertising a diet pill in connection with her spot and watchers thought she was endorsing it. At the same time she had regular spots on two radio shows, Tex and Jinx McCrary and Arthur Godfrey. From 1955 through 1975 Prudden continued her crusade for better bodies. She wrote 13 books, countless manuals, set up pilot programs of every kind imaginable, designed fitness clothing and equipment for home and school, lectured nonstop throughout the country, brought out six records, two films, 1 film strip, established five day training workshops, wrote and taped 35 half hour TV shows, The Bonnie Prudden Show. These were so successful that she contracted for 165 more shows. In 1962 The Reader’s Digest began underwriting the Prudden Program. This partnership lasted through the mid-80’s.
Prudden closed her White Plains Institute in 1959, bought 23 acres in Stockbridge, MA and in 1960 began building the Bonnie Prudden Institute for Physical Fitness. She continued her nationwide workshops, lecture series, Springfield College summer programs, maternity program at Wesson, and a new summer camp program for women, executives and children in conjunction with the Y and Lankenau Hospital in Philadelphia. Montgomery Ward added Bonnie’s fitness fashions and equipment to its catalog in 1960.
A rich story would end here, having impacted thousands of lives and generations to come. Amazingly a new phase of Bonnie’s expertise would ripen by 1976 and become what would be know as Bonnie Prudden Myotherapy. With it’s roots in the mid-century fitness agenda she spearheaded, in 1980 she launched her ground breaking book, PAIN ERASURE: THE BONNIE PRUDDEN WAY. Within six weeks it was a National Best Seller and has remained in print ever since, having helped and still helping hundreds of thousands of people live pain-free.
Also in 1980 Prudden opened The Bonnie Prudden School for Physical Fitness and Myotherapy, which trained students for the profession: Exercise Instructor, and Myotherapy and Corrective Exercise practitioner.
Her writing and professional development emerged from the belief that if the average person had the correct information and tools that they could take care of themselves. She said that Bonnie Prudden Myotherapy is effective whenever the pain is muscle related. Because the tools are fingers, knuckles and elbows she felt that the average person would be able to use the discipline quite easily. Myotherapy: Bonnie Prudden’s Complete Guide to Pain-Free Living was published in 1982. Her three children’s books were revised in 1986, 1987, 1988 to include chapters on Myotherapy for each age group.
In 1992, Bonnie moved her work and business to Tucson Arizona, where she ran the Bonnie Prudden School for Physical Fitness and Myotherapy and Bonnie Prudden Myotherapy Inc.. Refusing to retire, she continued her fight for more fit and pain-free bodies. For the next eighteen years she continued to teach people of all ages how to take responsibility for their own bodies and to erase muscle related pain for themselves, their friends, family, and pets. She continued to write, lecture and travel, teach at her school, see patients, and conduct exercise classes and pain erasure seminars, serve on boards and garner national and local awards. Despite a pelvis broken in four places in a skiing accident, heart attacks, reconstructive hip surgery on her left hip, stents, by-pass surgery (age 92) she continued to use each seemingly adverse situation to learn and teach.