Three decades after Jack LaLanne first invaded America's living rooms—flexing, stretching and urging housewives to abandon their Endust in pursuit of the ultimate physique—exercise televangelism fills the airwaves. Today, unabashed aerobicisers can awaken at 5:30 a.m. to the syndicated Morning Stretch and nod off 19 or so hours later to iron-pumping on the USA Network's soothing late-night Soloflex sessions.
Health-conscious viewers can feast on a pair of afternoon shows whose stars could start their own program and call it Jake & the Fatwoman. They can do deep knee bends in the glow of Body by Jake, hosted by Jake Steinfeld, who helped mold the physiques of Bette Midler and Steven Spielberg. Or if they're cable subscribers in New York or Washington, D.C., they can stretch and strain to Heavenly Body, a sweatshow with a resident instructor, Joan Mayer, who has shed 150 pounds on the program.
Now ESPN has assembled for the voyeur-viewer a two-hour midday, four-show lineup that, while it may not inspire the nation to tighten up its tummies, is certainly watched religiously by many. Not even the creators of this electronic onslaught, which begins each weekday morning at 11:00, know whether their audiences are sweating away pounds or simply sweating. "We have no way to distinguish who is watching and exercising from who is just watching," says Libby King. ESPN's director of program acquisitions, who confesses to doing the latter. "But it's a very loyal audience."
Indeed, an astonishing three quarters of a million people—40% of them men. according to Nielsen figures—tune in daily to some or all of the marathon, and advertisers couldn't care less if none of them stray from their sofas. So check the listings, then check your pulse:
Getting Fit with Denise Austin (11:00 a.m. EST). This low-impact-aerobics program is hosted by the perky ex-gymnast and spares no expense as Austin (sister-in-law of Tracy, the former tennis player) bounds across the lawns of the world's most lavish resorts.
Basic Training (11:30 a.m. EST). Hostess Ada Janklowicz, an erstwhile Israeli army private, gives orders in Hawaii, usually at a military installation.
Bodies in Motion (12:00 p.m. EST). Gilad Janklowicz, Ada's brother and producer, is a former army lieutenant and a world-class decathlete. He hosts the most vigorous workout on the block.
Body Shaping with Cory Everson (12:30 p.m. EST). This five-time Ms. Olympia (1984-88) bench-presses her way into the hearts of viewers, imploring them to follow her weightlifting regimen at home. All you need is a little desire and 30 minutes a day—plus a set of free weights in your living room.
The undisputed superstars of the bend-and-stretch set are the Janklowiczes. Gilad, 34, has pulled in $3 million over the past three years from home-video sales. He's a low-impact Arnold Schwarzenegger—an entrepreneurial hunk with a heavy accent. Ada, 28, is a no-nonsense Aerobo-Cop. "Most of the people tell us they're working out," she says, wryly. "But sure, some of them are just watching the scenery."
Indeed, it's the scenery that's behind exercise televangelism's undeniable appeal. Especially to those viewers whose bodies are at rest.