“You can’t turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.” -Bonnie Prudden
Bonnie Prudden is one of the most important American fitness innovators that you’ve likely never heard of. As an athletic prodigy turned fitness pioneer, Prudden was and still is the epitome of physical prowess. At almost 98 she is struggling with her health, so direct communication with Prudden is difficult. Through communication with her care taker and long time business partner Enid Whittaker, I was able to create this feature. I am pleased to introduce to you Bonnie Prudden.
A Star is Born
It wasn’t long after Bonnie Prudden’s birth on January 14, 1914 that she became notorious for her physical prowess. As a 4-year old she would climb out of her 2nd story bedroom window and down a tree to the street below to wander the neighborhood at night.
At a very late hour one night she knocked on a neighbor’s door informing them that she was there to pay them a visit. The surprised neighbors made her some hot chocolate and then proceeded to call her parents to notify them where Prudden was.
Her late night climbing escapades did not thrill her parents. Unable to control their daughter Prudden’s mom took her to the doctor to seek out advice to control her mischievous nature. The doctor informed Prudden’s mother that their was nothing wrong with Bonnie. However she needed some discipline in her life, that her physicality left her with way too much energy at night.
So her mother enrolled her in Russian Ballet classes. The plan worked, as 3 nights of ballet a week left Prudden with little energy to climb out of her window at night, instead opting to sleep.
By age 10 she began to flourish in the ballet becoming a professional dancer performing briefly on Broadway.
Prudden was far from one dimensional as an athlete. Along with dancing she excelled at skiing, swimming, riding, tennis and rock climbing.
Rock climbing was the sport she became most well known for in her life. As a climber she made 30 first ascents, often outdoing her legendary male counterparts and climbing buddies Hans Kraus, Fritz Weissner and Ken Prestrud.
Her favorite climbing spot was “The Gunks” or the Shawangunk Ridge in New York where she was the first person make the ascent to what became known as Bonnie’s Roof.
As a skier she was the first female to receive a National Ski Patrol Badge. This recognized her for helping skiers that got stuck and she would help them.
Her athletic ability was unmatched by most females, breaking one barrier after another en route to becoming a fitness icon.
When Prudden was 23 she badly fractured her pelvis in a skiing accident. The doctors told her that she would forever walk with a limp and that she would never again dance, ski, climb or have children.
This didn’t stop Bonnie, who after having 2 children, returned to her love of climbing.
Because Prudden was in excellent shape to start, a recovery was not unfathomable to her. She spent lots of time doing exercises in the water in Florida to recover. Eventually she returned to her form.
State of Fitness Address
In the early 40’s Prudden used a test created by Doctors Hans Kraus and Sonja Weber to test the physical fitness of children in several countries across the globe.
The Kraus-Weber test involved 6 simple movements to be performed in 90 seconds. Prudden found that in the United States the failure rate was overwhelmingly the highest. At a 58% fail rate Prudden deemed United States children “the least fit in the world”. To Prudden it was unfathomable that the richest country in the world could be one of the most unhealthy. In her words “Physical education had committed suicide.”
Her response to the issue was to testify before Dwight Eisenhower about the troubling direction of fitness in the USA. The evidence provided by Prudden, convinced the president to form the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
The Birth of a Fitness Icon
Success in creating the President’s Council on Physical Fitness led to fame for Prudden who over the coming years would became a major spokesperson in the world of physical fitness.
In 1957 she began writing weekly pieces for Sports Illustrated, teaching readers how to keep fit and active.
Courtesy of Green Valley News
She also wrote the first book on physical fitness entitled “Is your Child Really Fit?”. In total she wrote 22 books on physical fitness.
Her writing lead to frequent appearances on The Home Show and the Today show and then in 1968 her very own show The Bonnie Prudden Show. Her own show featured 3 segments. A segment in which she answered letters people sent to her, an interview segment and then she would conclude with an exercise segment. The content of her show was like no other at the time. Titles included “Sex, Socialism and Suicide”, “ Yes Virginia, There is a Swiss Navy!”, “Fear is another Word for Ignorance” and many more engaging titles. A worldly Bonnie brought new ideas, humor and good advice every week to her viewers.
Prudden Leading Class
Bonnie appeared on the Today show for 2 years before the network decided to start advertising dieting pills prior to her segment. Bonnie ask them to remove the ads because she did not endorse the product and thus did not want to be associated with the product. Since they would not remove the product, Prudden left the show.
It was Bonnie’s stance that she would never endorse a product that she didn’t feel good about or that she felt was promoting false statements. She had offers from various companies to endorse their product but she was unwilling.
On August 5th 1957 she was the first female to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She introduced the world to the Leotard. In doing so she made a fashion statement.
Innovating Female Fashion
When she appeared on the cover of SI it was the beginning of a fashion movement. Prudden realized when she was a 15-year old competing in the high jump (she won) that women athletic apparel was not up to par with mens. It wasn’t even athletic apparel, just calf-length bloomers, collared shirt and a hat.
Prudden knew that this type of apparel was not conducive to exercising.
“Women clothes were frumpy if women were gonna exercise, they needed fashion. The fashion helped promote the exercise.” said Prudden.
Prudden conceptualized new fashions by sketching them out. Her good friend Ben Sommers who was the head of Capezio Dance apparel at the time would then sew Prudden’s designs. The Leotard that she appeared in on SI was the first of its kind and was just the first of many new fashions Prudden would go on to create.
In the mid 1970s Prudden created a new physical therapy that she would later call Myotherapy.
Myotherapy effectively relieves musculoskeletal pain by putting pressure on very specific trigger points for an extended period of time. Doing so releases the pressure in the muscles and effectively relieves the pain.
Myotherapy was conceived of on one of Prudden’s climbs with Dr. Kraus. Right before they were to go on a challenging climb, Prudden’s neck began acting up. The stiffness made turning her head unbearable. Dr. Kraus pressed his thumb into the back of her neck to help relieve her pain and the pain actually dissipated.
“It felt like my eyes were gonna pop out.” said Prudden
At this point she realized how trigger point therapy could be effective against all types of pain.
The method requires the patient to do assigned exercises to help relieve pain between treatments. In doing so the pain will be relieved. In approximately 3 to 7 treatments a person can be fully recovered and also learn how to perform the therapy on themselves.
Prudden’s method has been well recognized for it’s pain erasing benefits, as many recognizable figures have used it to relieve pain. Most notably musician Leonard Bernstein and former major league baseball Home run champ Mark McGwire.
The method has helped countless people to this day and continues to do so.
In November 2007 Prudden was honored with the President’s Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award. An award recognizing her overall accomplishments as a fitness pioneer.
It is an award fitting for the person that Bonnie Prudden is. A loving and caring person. exuberant well into her late 90s, Prudden is influential to all of our lives even if we are not aware of it.
Prudden’s impact will have lasting effects, as her workout program Keep Fit be Happy is one of the few that can be done by all age groups. She emphasized making exercise accessible to anyone and she had a lifetime goal of making everyone the healthiest they could be.
Prudden is one of those influential figures that comes around only ever so often and for that she will be recognized for generations to come, even if we are not aware of it.
Remember while you can’t turn back the clock. You can always wind it up again. Truer words have never been spoken.