Mary Ann Wilson is the kind of person you want to spill your heart to.
I’m 20 minutes late for our interview — there are too many Starbucks locations in this town — but Mary Ann still greets me with a smile, warmly touching my arm with sincere “it’s all right” understanding.
It’s a quality that people around the country love about Mary Ann. She’s been coming into homes from Amarillo to Allendale, Topeka to Toledo. She’s the host of the popular stay-at-home senior fitness program Sit and Be Fit — a program that she creates and films right here in Spokane. It’s a show that’s broadcast to an estimated 66 million televisions nationwide. With countless episodes and 27 workout products, Wilson has become something of an icon.
After years of working as a post-polio nurse at a Veterans Administration hospital in California, Wilson left her job to be a full-time mom. But when her husband died, Wilson went through a slow grieving process.
“I started taking this aerobics class,” she says. “It really got me through a lot of the emotional upheaval. For one whole hour I just had to think about my body and just watch the instructor — it kind of saved my life.”
“[My instructor] called me one day and said, ‘You know what, I’m sick. If I sent the records’ — that’s when we still did classes with records — ‘Could you please lead it?’” She stops to hold her head, laughing. “And I said, ‘No! Absolutely not!’ I’m terribly, terribly shy.”
Later, Wilson found herself kicking around the idea of being an instructor — and she asked the same instructor if she could teach her how.
“She just about fell over,” she says, still laughing. After becoming certified, Wilson started taking her classes to senior centers. “I’d go to senior centers and see such marvelous things happening,” she says. “People would come up to me and say, ‘Look at my hands, I can write my grandkids. I can turn and look over my shoulder when I get out of the driveway.’” Wilson began to realize that not only had exercise improved her life, but she was now seeing the ways it was improving the lives of others.
And she couldn’t just stop there. “I realized I could make people feel so much better,” she says. And so the idea of Sit and Be Fit was hatched: Wilson aimed to create a workout program not just for seniors, but also for those living alone. Or for people with disabilities.
“This would be a wonderful way to make them feel important, to feel better mentally and physically,” she says.
But not everyone shared her vision. Once she devised the idea for Sit and Be Fit, Wilson went to one television station after another with it. “They kind of sat there and listened to the story and said, ‘Well, that’s very nice,” she says.
Bill Stanley, then the program director at KSPS, got it. “He listened. He really listened,” she’s says. “They really took a chance — an exercise program in a chair? I mean, come on. I really do credit them for their vision — they really shared that with me. I really needed someone to see the same things that I saw.”
Nine months later, in July 1987, Mary Ann Wilson had transformed from an aerobics class wallflower to the host of her very own television show.
Today, Sit and Be Fit is a team effort of employees, production assistants and interns. But Mary Ann and her initial mission are still the life and breath of the show.
With the help of her daughter, Wilson consults with physical therapists, doctors and specialists in preparation for each show to devise her exercises. Some episodes deal with specific muscle groups. Episode No. 1001 concentrates on improving the range of shoulder motion. Episode No. 1012 focuses on the abdominal core.
But Wilson uses the 30 minutes that she has with her viewers efficiently, covertly slipping in visualizations, brain exercise — even safe driving tips. Each episode is jam packed with finger exercises, stretching and strength training. Wilson makes everything seem easy — most of the exercises in Sit and Be Fit are done using dishtowels, small balls and other tools that anyone would have around the house.
“We get some feedback it looks a little like tai chi, and some say it looks like yoga. I get ideas from everywhere; I get ideas from my own shows!” she says. “Ideas are always percolating. It can be a kids’ tapdancing program — I’ll think, ‘Oh yeah, that can be a great exercise.’ Or if I watch a parade, or even Dancing With The Stars!” On Sit and Be Fit, Wilson is hardly all gym-talk and trainer-speak. She’s exactly the same in person as on camera: demure, polite and neighborly.
You just want to hug her.
This article first appeared in the November issue of our InHealthNW magazine, on newsstands now.