Real bodies: Better watch your butt

US fitness guru Tony Little is extending his crusade to the UK. Off that sofa now, orders STUART HUSBAND

Tony Little has a 29-inch waist and a 48-inch chest. His biceps are 18 inches in circumference. He's 41 years old and he's America's Personal Trainer.

This is no hollow hype; Tony's regular TV "infomercials" and spots on home shopping channel QVC, selling personally designed fitness gizmos like his Gazelle Glider (a sort of swing-cum-treadmill that "brings you the best of aerobics with the best of muscle toning"), and his motivational videos have made him more famous in America than star clients like Tom Selleck and Jenny McCarthy. He describes himself as "icon-ish". He throws numbers at you with gay abandon: 18 million videos sold to people in 81 countries; 250,000 Gliders shipped at $249 apiece; $1bn worth of merchandise shifted in five years.

The fact that America remains the most corpulent nation on earth hasn't dimmed Tony's missionary zeal one jot; he's now over here, with his trademark ponytail, deep-basted tan, perfectly aligned teeth and permanently sunny demeanour, to spread further the fitness word (and flog a few more Gliders) on British QVC. This zeal is possibly Tony's secret weapon in an overcrowded fitness guru market; his first infomercials earned him the nickname Mr Hyper, and his breathless exhortations and relentless enthusiasm bear more than a passing resemblance to the hellfire sermons of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart.

In fact, Little could teach Swaggart & Co a thing or two about overcoming insurmountable obstacles with the power of belief. He's bleeding today - a little nick acquired when shaving that, spookily, continues to dribble throughout the hour we spend together - but this is small potatoes compared with the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune has previously dumped on him.

His early career as a bodybuilder - he was Mr Florida and Mr Southern United States, and was favourite for Mr America - was abruptly halted when his car was broadsided by a school bus, leaving him with innumerable slipped discs and broken bones. A misapplied spinal tap following the accident left him with a bout of spinal meningitis. He got chemical burns on his butt - to use Tony terminology - when he unwittingly sat on a table that had been treated with acid. Weeks later, a horse kicked him between the legs. More recently, he crashed his sports car and received 160 stitches in his face. He's acquired a new nickname: the Exercise Crash Test Dummy.

Frailer beings would have long since thrown in the towel, but Little, in time-honoured American fashion, came to believe that that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. After a while, anyway. "I was pretty low after the bus accident," he admits. "I'd only ever wanted to bodybuild, so it was a huge blow. I developed a painkiller and junk food habit. I was depressed and 60 pounds overweight."

However, he also devoured textbooks on exercise techniques and nutrition. Then, one day, Jane Fonda came on TV in a leotard, doing her aerobic thing. Little was galvanised.

"I thought, what the hell is this?" he recalls. "Now, forgive me, but doing a little dance with a celebrity is not going to tone muscles; you need to do resistance work with weights on top of that if you really want to get fit." Tony realised that no one was preaching this gospel - a mixture of cardiovascular work and resistance exercises, what he calls "balance" - on TV, so he went out, raised $5,500 for 13 infomercial slots on his local TV station by forming a health spa cleaning company, and debuted on-air with Target Training in 1994.

"I used to ask people, if your car was broken down, would you take it to a certified mechanic, or take it to a celebrity who knew nothing about cars? My goal was to train everybody, not only the Jane Fonda woman, but her husband and family too, give them access to the right information, and make it affordable. All these new 'miracle' workouts come along like miracle diets - the Martial Arts workout is the latest in the States - but most of them are ineffective and people get injured trying to do them. I say to people, you have to work muscle groups, because they're our bodies' engine, keeping our metabolism up, and you have to do lightweight resistance at least three days a week for toning, and you have to do cardiovascular work because it's good for the heart and lungs. But there are no quick fixes. You've got to be in it for the long haul."

Little has introduced various "motivation techniques" to keep his disciples' recidivistic tendencies in check: each of his products comes with a "time clock" at the bottom of the screen - 30 seconds for beginners, 60 for intermediate, and so on. He has a toll-free Personal Trainer Line - not yet available, alas, in the UK - with 15 trainers on 24-hour Samaritan- style call. He has a website (www.tonylittle.com). He has t-shirts and baseball caps bearing his favourite mantras: "Conceive Believe Achieve" and "Negativity Sucks". But, despite all this, America seems to be getting plumper. Doesn't that depress him?

"Oh yeah, I'm up against it," he concedes. "In fact, I just wrote a book - Fat-Free Foods Are Making Us Fatter. People just eat more of this stuff because they think it's OK, but a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, whether it's protein, carbohydrate or fat, and if you take in more than you give off, you'll get fatter. Simple as that. People generally have very little awareness of their bodies, and it's also part of my job to fight that ignorance. Have I stopped bleeding?" he asks hopefully. He hasn't. "Oh my. I'm starting to get a little lightheaded."

Little himself spends an hour a day in the gym, either in his Florida home (alone - "women are getting more dangerous, mentally and physically," he mutters), or one of the hotels he finds himself in 20 days a month as he preaches his way across the world's shopping networks. Isn't he tempted just to go crazy and let it all hang out? "That's where my temple theory comes in. Five days a week, my body is a temple. The other two days it's an amusement centre." But you're drinking coffee on a temple day, I point out. "That's okay. Caffeine is thermogenic." Of course. Silly me.

When asked if he's made a huge fortune from his ministry, Little, uncharacteristically, comes over all coy. "That's not important to me," he says. "I'm just glad I've been able to help people." Is he going to be a buffed-up pensioner, leading the press-ups and crunches in retirement communities? "Gee, I hope so. You know," he says, fixing his eyes on mine, "I believe there was a reason those bad things happened to me and that was so I could learn and make my services valuable to the public. I make sure I try to produce positive energy and communicate that to other people."

And with that, Tony Little lifts his He-Man body off the comfy chair and strides back through the hotel lobby, still clutching his crimson tissue to his face, bloodied but unbowed.

TELLY TUBBIES

To work the abdominal muscles:

1. Put down the remote control.

2. Lie full-length on the couch, putting your feet up on the arm, and pushing your butt as far down into the couch as you can.

3. Put your hand behind your head, raise your upper body about two inches toward the knees. Don't try to reach the knees.

4. Hold the position for a few seconds and ease back to your starting position. Repeat 10, 15 or 20 times. Stop. Continue watching telly as before.

To work the legs:

1. Place beer out of the way. Stand straight with arms by your sides.

2. Bend at the knees until knees and thighs are parallel to the floor.

3. Rise to a standing position. Repeat up to 15 times. Carry on watching TV while exercising.

To work the upper body:

1. Put out cigarette. Sit on the carpet in a cross-legged position, so that your knees and feet are touching the floor.

2. Hold your arms up straight in a "hand-stand" position.

3. Bend your upper body toward the floor as far as you can go and ease back up to your starting position. Repeat 10-12 times (if possible).

If you do these every day, your energy levels will improve and your body will become stronger - conceive believe achieve!

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