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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.
"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.