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Bob Harper’s Passion

He loves exercise. So why not use it to help others?


Are you ready? It’s a question I ask anyone I’m training, whether it’s a private client or a contestant on The Biggest Loser. Are you ready to work out? Ready to make a huge difference to your health and well-being? Ready to become the person you were meant to be?

“Sure” comes the usual answer. But as we go through our exercises—push-ups, lunges, the treadmill—I look for that inner readiness that says they want to change their lives forever. Because the first time I went to a gym, that’s what happened to me.

I was in my early 20s. I’d grown up on a farm in Tennessee. The only real workouts I ever had were baling hay or mucking out stalls. Not that I planned on doing that for long. I had big dreams for myself, hopes that I could make a difference in the world. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I somehow knew that I wasn’t meant to stay on the farm.

I couldn’t afford college so I moved to the nearest city—Nashville—to get a job. I started working for a bank because I thought that would be safe and dependable. They put me in the credit department. All day I sat at a computer filling out mortgage forms for “verifications of deposits.” It was as monotonous as any of my old farm chores. And I was stuck inside all day.

I lived in a little apartment adjacent to a strip mall. There was a restaurant, a shoe store and a small gym. At night I stared out the window at the sign on the gym that read, “Exercise Plus,” and wondered what people did inside. They rushed from their cars with bags slung over their shoulders. They came out looking sweaty and flushed, but with a spring in their step.

It seemed odd to me that they were energized after working out. I always equated exercise with getting tired. But these people signed up for classes at all hours—before work, lunch time, evenings. And they left with a smile.

I decided to check the place out. The energy of the gym was palpable. I could hear the disco beat of an aerobics class and the teacher calling out steps over the music, “One, two, three, four.” Instantly, I liked the whole vibe. “Do you have a class I could take?” I asked the woman at the front desk.

“Sure,” she said, handing me a list of a half-dozen aerobics classes—this was the ’80s, after all. Then she looked down at my dark slacks and wingtips. “You’ll need something better on your feet,” she said, as though I might not have thought of that. “Something that will be good for moving.”

I stopped at the shoe store and bought a pair of Reeboks and some shorts. The shoes seemed bulky, like something an astronaut might wear, but they were what everybody else had. I walked right out of the store and straight into the gym, signed up for my first class and went into the studio, my Reeboks squeaking on the polished wood floor.

People huddled around the walls, some standing on one leg like pelicans, pulling up on their opposite foot. Others stretched to their toes or did breathing exercises. Finally, the teacher came in, decked out in a leotard and tights. I was awestruck. She looked like Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect. “Are you ready?” she asked. “Let’s begin.”

It was a high-impact aerobics class, way beyond anything I was ready for. I barely kept up, watching the teacher and trying to follow everybody else in class. Kicking, jumping, lunging and squatting—I was always three steps behind everybody and half out of breath. I made it to the end and left sweaty and exhausted, but with a smile on my face. Where had I seen that before?

I was still on a high the next day despite the fact that I could scarcely move. My calves were killing me. I had to clutch the banister to pull myself up the stairs at work and I inched backward toward my desk because it hurt too much to walk forward. And yet, as I followed the blue cursor on those tedious mortgage forms on my computer screen, I thought, Can’t wait for my next class. Can’t wait to get back to the gym.

I got so good they asked me to teach.

Me? Was I ready? I wasn’t sure. It had all happened so fast, so unexpectedly. Yet isn’t that often how we decide to change our lives? Was this the place God meant me to be, doing what I was meant to do?

I felt it deep down inside, the way I felt it was meant for me to leave the farm. I set myself goals—to learn new exercises, to understand how the body worked and how one workout might be right for one person but not for another. I got in better shape than I’d ever even imagined I could be. Who would have guessed that a strip mall with a little place called Exercise Plus would change my life? Then again, who’s to say how  and when a miracle might happen?

A couple months later the bank had to make cutbacks. I lost my job. In despair I told the owner of the gym, and she hired me full-time. Soon I was helping her manage the place and teaching a full class schedule. I read everything I could about fitness, took seminars, went to conventions. I couldn’t get enough. I became totally dedicated. In fact, I was astonished at how committed to fitness I was. I never knew that something could stir such deep passion in me.

After a year I threw everything I owned in a little Toyota Corolla and drove across the country to California, where there were some of the best teachers and finest gyms. All of a sudden I found myself teaching classes and giving personal training sessions for the biggest names in Hollywood.

I’m enough of a Tennessee farm boy to keep grounded. I’d be in a session with some A-list celeb and get a little tongue-tied, then I’d pray and remember God put me where I was for a reason. How can I be helpful? I’d think. How can I show what I love? There were always ways in which I was needed. Exercises and routines that would help a person reach a goal.

“Don’t think of this workout as something you need to do until you lose a few pounds,” I told clients. “This is something that you’ll want to do the rest of your life.” Exercise was about becoming all you could be. More than anything, it was about change, and change is a miracle.

That’s what excited me when I heard about The Biggest Loser reality TV show. That’s why I auditioned so enthusiastically (and said some serious prayers) to become the trainer on it. For years I’d been working with people who might want to go from a size six to a size two or wanted their six-pack abs turned into an eight pack.

At The Biggest Loser I found myself working with people who needed to lose 60, 75, even 100 pounds not just for vanity’s sake but to be healthy enough to see their children grow up and to raise grandchildren. In many cases people’s lives depended on getting into shape.

I’ve been on the show for 10 seasons now—we’re starting our 11th—and I can’t tell you how deeply inspiring the contestants are. Sometimes I have to put them through incredibly rigorous workouts.

If you’ve seen us on TV, you know how grueling it can be. But it’s not athletic ability that really counts. It’s that inner quality of persistence and belief that makes the difference, that totally awesome commitment to change. Change—real change in our lives—can only come from total dedication and a belief that a power greater than ourselves is there to help us.

“Are you ready?” I ask at a workout. I pray for that person to find the answer inside them that says, “I’m ready to become all I can be. I’m ready to change.” That’s the greatest miracle of all.

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