Tony Horton: Personal trainer to the masses

The gig: A longtime personal trainer and nutrition expert, Tony Horton is the face of the hugely successful P90X fitness video series, which has sold more than 3.5 million copies. The 53-year-old Horton has the body of a professional athlete and a background in theater that makes him a natural on camera. In addition to P90X and sequel P90X2, Horton has been featured in a host of fitness videos: “Power 90,” “One on One with Tony Horton,” “10 Minute Trainer” and “Power Half Hour,” to name a few. All told, Horton’s videos have more than $500 million in sales.

The beginning: As a child, Horton struggled with a speech impediment and was not much of an athlete. “I used to get beat up at the bus stop. I was always the last kid picked for teams,” he said. At the University of Rhode Island, Horton studied theater in hopes it would improve his speech. He also took a weightlifting class, which inspired a decades-long dedication to fitness. “I was a scrawny little kid with a belly before that,” he said.

A road trip: In 1980, while just a few classes short of graduating from college, Horton decided to join a friend on a cross-country road trip to Hermosa Beach. He took an immediate liking to Southern California, which has been his home ever since. “I guess it was a 30-year summer,” he said. In the early years, Horton made money performing mime, doing carpentry, waiting tables, acting in commercials and modeling. Money was tight. “We’d walk through alleys to find furniture. We’d go to the Goodwill to buy sheets,” he said. “We were in California and it was gorgeous.” After a couple of years, he joined a gym and started employing techniques he’d learned in his college weightlifting class.


The turning point: Horton’s muscular build caught the attention of music talent manager Harlan Goodman, who asked Horton to start training him. One of Goodman’s clients called Horton at home one day. “It’s Tom Petty,” the caller said. Horton hung up, suspecting a prank. The phone range again. “It’s really Tom Petty,” the gravely voice said. “I’m going on tour and I want you to train me.” His work with Petty led to training gigs with other celebrities: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Idol, Usher. He said he thought the rockers took a liking to him because he was gentler and more thoughtful than other trainers. “I wasn’t a meathead. I wasn’t a tough guy. We could talk about other things,” he said.

Why P90X works: The videos allow people to exercise in their living rooms at a comfortable pace. The routines are fairly simple: push-ups, sit-ups, aerobics, yoga, karate, light weights. But the concept is unique. The idea, Horton said, is variety. “People get bored if they’re doing the same thing day after day. They won’t stick with it,” he said.

Why the United States has an obesity problem: “You have the fast-food companies. They made fat, sugar, salt and chemicals taste so good.... People have gotten lazy. They’re not moving. They’ve cut fitness programs out of school.” He’s no fan of weight-loss surgery, which he sees advertised on freeway billboards throughout Southern California. “It’s a travesty,” he said. “It’s people not willing to do the work to create the change.”

Nutrition first: Horton advocates a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grain, lean meat and spices to make it all taste good. “The real issue is not lack of exercise. It’s poor eating habits. Your mouth ultimately causes the problem, and it’s also the solution,” he said. “The one thing about P90X is you have to eat food. It gives you the fuel to go out and kick ass.”

A weakness: When it comes to nutrition, Horton advocates a 90/10 plan: eating 90% healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain and lean meat, while leaving 10% for something you like. For Horton, that’s chocolate. “It’s chocolate-chip cookies, chocolate mousse, chocolate pudding,” he said.

A young man’s game? “I’m 53. It feels better than 23 ever did. Retirement seems silly to me. Why would you stop doing something you love? I guess when the phone stops ringing.”

Personal: Horton lives in Santa Monica with his girlfriend, Shawna. In his spare time, he enjoys skiing and travel. He owns a condominium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and hopes to get in 40 days of skiing this year.