The cheerful barefoot executive shown in the pictures at the left, perched on her office desk in shirt and shorts, provides convincing proof—more convincing than a gymful of statistics—that exercise makes the woman. In this case the woman it has made, both physically and economically, is Ruth (Bonnie) Prudden. Miss Prudden exudes a contagious aura of having a wonderful time, which presumably explains her success in the unlikely business of selling body conditioning, a commodity that in these comfort-loving times would seem about as salable as a covered wagon. At 42, Bonnie (who looks 10 years younger) is the complete opposite of the classic caricature of the unattractive gym teacher. "I'm living life to the hilt," Bonnie says, "you have to be in good shape for that."
As owner-director-teacher at the Institute for Physical Fitness in White Plains, N.Y., Miss Prudden (everybody calls her Bonnie) commands respect, devotion and substantial fees from some 400 businessmen, housewives and children from the age of three to 85, whom she cajoles, challenges and charms into going through muscular contortions they would never dream of tolerating under other circumstances. The explanation is simple: they have fun doing it. Bonnie, more than any other person working in the field of physical fitness today, has taken the chore out of exercise and restored the joy, has given people a taste of the almost wild exhilaration a child feels climbing trees and balancing on fences.
Bonnie is bursting to share a secret with the world: how to feel and look better through exercise. She doesn't advocate exercise because it improves your character but because it's fun.
Under Bonnie's magic spell, sophisticated suburban matrons delight in scaling mountainous walls (right) and even master the art of hanging upside down by their knees. And some of them, victims of A-bomb era tensions, discover for the first time the blissful euphoria of purely physical fatigue.
July 15, 1956
"Every woman needs to be attractive," says Bonnie, "but to be so is not our due for being born, it is our reward for physical activity."
Many women who do their own housework protest that they get plenty of physical activity at home, but Bonnie, with a directness that is typical of her, replies bluntly: "Housework won't raise a bosom to where it belongs or keep it there. [Chin-ups and push-ups will, she maintains.] Housework is no good for all-round muscular fitness," she explains, "because all the work is done from the elbow. With all our gadgets, the only work left in housework is opening the door of the washing machine or pushing the vacuum cleaner."
The need to compensate for this increasing lack of spontaneous physical activity by putting exercise back into our lives was the problem that Bonnie and more than 100 other conferees faced recently at Annapolis during the President's Conference on Fitness (First Blow for Fitness, SI, July 2). Bonnie spoke there, but her main contribution has been that she is a doer, not just a talker. "Talk, talk, talk," she says, her mobile face expressing deep scorn. "The country is disappearing while we sit around and talk about it. It's like the story somebody told me of the people who argued about which fire hydrant to use while the church burned down."
Bonnie realized the church was on fire about nine years ago. She recalled the circumstances recently as she slipped off her working clothes in her office dressing room and got into a soft silk low-necked dress that clung to her figure. "My two daughters, Petie and Susan, then 8 and 4," she said, "were missing a part of childhood that I had known and loved. When I was a kid, we played outdoors all the time, we climbed trees, and I never walked anywhere, I always ran.
"My parents couldn't do anything with me. I wouldn't stay put. But then, I've always said the child who breaks out of his playpen is the most likely to succeed," she continued, glancing around her lavish office with the fresh batch of clippings mentioning her name piled high on her mammoth desk. As her eyes fell on the combination bar and lunch counter, she wandered over to it and made herself and guest a drink. "People think you shouldn't drink if you want to be a good example of fitness," she said, tossing her cropped head of curls. "I say, the main reason for having a good body is to get the most out of life—and that means having fun, and it may mean having a drink now and then.
"To get back to my childhood," she resumed. "You know, my family is supposed to be descended from Davy Crockett. Do you think I look like an Indian? Well, anyway, I acted like one as a child. Sometimes I would get out of bed at night, climb out the window, walk across a six-inch ledge on the roof, slide down a tree and go visiting. But my daughters weren't doing anything like that. So I asked them to bring five friends each to Scout House. I got them to run and jump and do all the things any child will naturally do if given a chance, but the disturbing fact was that some of the children just couldn't run. They shuffled, and that seemed to be all they could do.
"I discussed this one day with Dr. Kraus [Dr. Hans Kraus, of the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the NYU-Bellevue Medical Center] as we rested on a ledge we were climbing thousands of feet up in the mountains, and I asked him whether there weren't some tests I could give the kids to show their improvement over a year. He advised using the Kraus-Weber test." This is a series of six tests for minimum muscular fitness devised by Dr. Kraus and Dr. Sonja Weber and used in the Kraus-Prudden study which showed the physical superiority of European to American children. Each one is a simple movement like bending over and touching fingers to toes, and sit-ups.
The following year Bonnie tested her little exercise class, which by then numbered 40, and was dismayed to find that 50% of the new students failed to pass the simple test. This was the beginning of her role as Kraus-Weber tester of schoolchildren which spanned seven years and a half-dozen countries and culminated in her being summoned, with Dr. Kraus, to the White House last summer to discuss the muscular superiority of European over American children. During all those years she was also running her expanding exercise school, and after she turned professional, every penny she spent on the Kraus-Weber testing came from the profits of the school.
"If you wait for a grant, time goes by, and this was—and is—a national emergency," Bonnie said. Then, utilizing a gift for dramatic exaggeration that often enrages her critics and competitors, she added: "I don't see this country lasting 30 years unless we get on the ball right away. We can't be equal with Russia in physical fitness for the next 20 years. We were once the greatest nation, today we're the weakest in the world. We've taken the physical life out of America. Now we've got to go right back to the beginning: we've got to exercise. There are not enough facilities or time for competitive sports to do the job."
Some physical educators, annoyed by Bonnie's flamboyance, still claim that she is a fanatic who can't know what she's talking about because she has no training in the fitness field. Her professional background, Bonnie readily admits, consists of 10 years working with Dr. Kraus and 10 years as a professional concert dancer. Many of her professional critics have capitulated, however, and have made pilgrimages to White Plains to observe her methods in action.
Bonnie's formal education ended with graduation in 1933 from the Horace Mann High School. But among her other qualifications is the fact that Bonnie has been a sort of Babe Didrikson. She has participated and excelled in almost every sort of physical activity imaginable, including breaking horses. At the age of 4 she was studying ballet two and three times a week in Mount Vernon, where she lived with a younger sister ("She was called pretty, I was called healthy") and her parents. Her father, a busy newspaper advertising representative, fondly hoped that a vigorous regimen of dancing would wear Bonnie out so she would refrain from climbing out of the window in the middle of the night. It did make for fewer nocturnal sorties.
When she grew older Bonnie was on every team there was, and had a reputation as a tomboy.
"When I wanted to find out if I liked a boy, I'd climb a tree, and challenge him to follow me. If he couldn't make it he was out, as far as I was concerned." Presumably one of them made it, because she was married in 1936 to Richard Hirschland. (They were divorced two years ago.)
After her marriage, she took up skiing and mountaineering and, for a starter, climbed the Matterhorn on her honeymoon. When she and her husband settled in Harrison, N.Y., she became a member of the ski patrol and organized what she called the Addle-pate Ski Club. "I ran it for 11 years, had over 1,000 kids as members and never a fracture. We demanded six weeks of work on the ground before we let them take to the snow. I started the first Junior Ski Patrol." She was given the Eastern Amateur Ski Association safety award which had never before been presented to a woman.
Bonnie had firsthand experience with accidents when she was 22 and came down Suicide Six near Woodstock, Vermont and smashed her pelvis. "Something like that happens to you, but it doesn't follow that you've got to quit," she explained casually. Although her injury healed and she was able to get around by wearing a brace, the pain was so intense that she consulted Dr. Kraus. Part of his treatment for her consisted of exercises, which she reasoned could be used preventively before an injury as well as afterward. "There's such a connection between the almost and the O.K.; I turned what I learned there about pathology to the not-so-pathological of the so-called normal."
Whatever Bonnie learned and is now applying at the institute, it certainly seems to work. Only 4% of her students fail the Kraus-Weber test (as compared with over 50% failure among American schoolchildren).
"We at the institute know how to teach," Bonnie said of herself and her assistants. "Our methods get results in fitness, and in pride, on a self-comparison basis. As a matter of fact, it's the institute for a lot of things besides physical fitness. One year five women in my classes got pregnant, and I said just because I'd relaxed and loosened them up I wouldn't take the responsibility for the results. All five returned to be reconditioned and later they brought the new babies too, so my roll was increased by five. It pays to turn out a fine product."
The product is turned out in a onetime public school, in which Bonnie has so far invested $60,000 to $70,000 of her own money. She converted the school into six gymnasiums, locker rooms, facilities for a massage room and snack bar and her Madison Avenue-type office (which even includes a tilting lounge chair like the one in the movie Man in the Gray Flannel Suit).
To be part of all this, adults pay $3.50 an hour (children $2.50) for a 30-week course which takes place in the gyms or, when the weather is nice, outdoors on a red, yellow and blue obstacle course, euphemistically called "the physical fitness apparatus" (see chart, page 63).
Bonnie designed this ingenious muscle mover herself and had it built for $3,000. Its excellence was underlined by a recent request for one just like it from Sargent College, the country's leading women's physical education teacher's college. Bonnie happily supplied Sargent—gratis—with detailed dimensions and instructions.
Such a gift seemed entirely appropriate to Bonnie, a woman more interested in spreading her doctrine than increasing her dollars. It was in line with her taking her daughters out of public schools "because they weren't getting enough physical education."
"My daughters are my two stakes in America," said Bonnie with great feeling. "I want them strong and emotionally stable, to face what comes. Anyone without his head on backward wants the same things for his kids. But we can't just want; we have to act. Eventually," she said, pacing up and down vigorously, "I will put an Institute for Physical Fitness in every city in the country. I'll help wake up the public through my books. I don't plan for today. I plan for five years from today. The Chinese plan for five generations. If we could do that, we could maybe change the world," she ended.
No one looking at and listening to Bonnie would have doubts that she—if not the rest of us—could.
Is Your Child Really Fit? (Harper, $2.50) will be published this August. Basic Exercises No. 1 was published by Institute for Physical Fitness, 1951.
OVER THE HURDLES WITH THE AUTHOR
1 Cargo nets.
Any way I tried to go, it was hard climbing.
2 Balance track.
It looked easy, but sudden hills threw me. The track seemed to be booby-trapped.
3 Hurdles, large.
For some reason the hollow ones were harder than the higher, solid ones. I made a belly-flopper dive on one of them—which was obviously the incorrect method.
4 Rope climb.
I really expected to do better than just barely raise myself off the ground I had grown to love.
Running through them like a football player, I felt as if I never would get my legs properly back in place once more.
Jumping off is like diving into an unfilled swimming pool. I didn't expect ever to get my teeth apart again.
Hanging by my knees, I experienced a strange and wonderful sensation looking at the world from upside down.
8 Balance ladder.
I crawled like a baby, but not quite as well.
9 Slalom poles.
They were slightly dizzying when I ran between them, but this is recommended exercise for skiers and tennis players.
10 Hurdles, small.
Under one and over the other is the way, but I got stuck going under. I attributed this to inexperience, but it was still very embarrassing.
11 Balance maze.
The trick is to balance on a plank about six inches wide which, just as I got balanced, turned at a 90° angle. Mostly a psychological problem.
12 Rappel roof.
I tried to pull myself up one side and let myself down the other, but I left skin on the rope.
The guide ropes are supposed to help. My ego got me out there, but Bonnie brought me back.
14 Parallel bars.
I clutched a bar in each hand and tried to push myself off the ground. My protesting wrists shook as if I had palsy, and I was happy to quit.
15 Climbing wall.
Everyone else climbed except me, but their safety depended on the rope around my waist, which gouged a groove in my middle. I knew what the sideshow lady who is sawed in two must feel like.