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Jackie Kennedy’s Fitness Secrets

Her former trainer offers tips on getting a body like the former First Lady’s

By Jill Yanish

Jackie Kennedy Onassis exuded elegance — from her impeccable manners to her sophisticated style, to, of course, her fit figure.

As she aged, she had to work for the physique that helped her look fabulous in iconic tailored suits and sleeveless dresses. But Onassis was looking for more than superficial gain when she sought out fitness trainer Joan Pagano. She wanted to become stronger. And that, Pagano says, is the secret to Jackie O’s look: strength training.

In her new book, Strength Training Exercises for Women, Pagano says a focus on strength is crucial to all of us as we age.

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Pagano, who is based in New York, began working with the former First Lady when Onassis was in her early 60s. “She knew that strength training is empowering, both to the body and confidence,” says Pagano.

Strength training, Pagano adds, helps maintain independence and liveliness by giving you the ability to continue doing daily activities. “Everybody wants to be able to maintain a certain quality of life as they get older, and it’s physical limitations that make us feel old,” she says.

In order to ward off those limitations, Pagano recommends four essential strength-training exercises that require no external resistance — just your own body weight: push-ups, squats, back extensions and pelvic tilts, all of which are outlined in her book.

(MORE: 7 (Fun) Ways to Get More Fit)

Next Avenue recently spoke with Pagano about Jackie O and how exercise should change as we age. Here are highlights from the conversation:

Next Avenue: Jackie Onassis and Caroline Kennedy were two of your clients. How did that happen?

Pagano: [Caroline] wanted someone to train her in her home while she was raising her young children and writing her first two books. I trained Caroline for a number of years. And then one day, there was a message on my answering machine from her mother who said, “Hello Joan, this is Jackie Kennedy, you know, Caroline’s mother.”

I was so stunned at how humble she was and how she introduced herself. She wanted my help in a strength-training program. She wanted to work out at home with minimal equipment to improve her [horse] riding skills, because she had been a fearless rider and felt that as she was becoming older, she was losing that fearless edge. She felt that strength training would be empowering, both to her body and to her confidence level.

We'd all like to have Jackie O’s glamour and style. How do you think fitness plays into the sense of elegance she had?

In the way she held herself, her posture — which is one thing that definitely improves with strength training — and the way she kept her body. She was so fit. She knew that fitness gives you a certain kind of confidence — that if you’re fit and healthy, you really look and feel your best.

In your new book, you focus on strength training rather than cardio. Why?

Strength training is one-third of a well-rounded fitness program; the other two-thirds being cardio and stretching. It’s been said that cardio gives us longevity in life, but strength training gives us our quality of life.

In other words, strength training makes us more able-bodied as we’re aging because it allows us to be more self-sufficient and gives us a boost in confidence, as well as a boost in appearance.

The other thing about strength training is that it’s the most intimidating and mystifying aspect of a well-rounded fitness program.

For cardio, everyone knows that they can go out and do a walking program. Stretching is fairly easy. But women have a lot of outdated thinking about [strength training]. The book guides women very, very thoroughly into a safe and effective strength-training program, most of which can be done at home with minimal equipment.

What are the myths women have about strength training?

Most women are afraid that they’re going to bulk up if they lift weights. They need to be reassured that first of all, we simply don’t have enough of the hormone testosterone to build big muscles. Men are endowed with more testosterone; [women] just simply can’t build big muscles.

If you see someone who looks like a female body builder, know that she is genetically predisposed to have that kind of a physique, and also she’s on a very rigorous training regimen in order to look that way.

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Most women will just simply develop firmer muscles and more contours. You actually shrink with strength training as you develop lean body mass. Your muscles get firmer, so your clothing fits looser. Contrary to most popular thinking, women do not bulk up; they shape up.

Why is strength training especially important for women over 50?


A women’s body hits its prime before the age of 30. After that time, all the physiological systems begin a very subtle decline, which usually manifests around the age of 50, or post-menopausal.

Strength training can help [aging] conditions, and it can help, in fact, almost every kind of illness imaginable. Whether it’s heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes or COPD — which are things that are showing up in the body at a later age — strength training can help manage those conditions.

How should exercising change as we age?

It’s very individual. First of all, there’s no reason that an aging woman with healthy joints can’t do high-intensity exercise. But the things that we really need to focus on are protecting the joints. You always want to warm up first before you work out, because the body really likes gradual movement.

You want to work on balance, because falls are a very big concern for people getting older, and we want to do everything we can to prevent falls.

And then, we need to work on core strength because our core really is the powerhouse of our body. The muscles of the abdomen and spine are extremely important for posture as well as for balance and quality of movement, so that when you perform a movement in your day-to-day, you are using the strength of your core muscles to support those movements.

What are common things women do wrong when it comes to strength training?

Some don’t have the proper form and alignment. In order to target the muscle properly and get the most benefit out of each time we perform the repetition of the exercise, you really need to have proper alignment.

Pacing and breathing are also important — I find strength training very meditative. You don’t want to use momentum; you don’t want to fling your body around. You want to use a lot of control and match your movement to your breathing.

What areas of the body are often neglected in terms of strengthening?

I like to think of the weak link being the wrist and the ankle. As women are getting older, we need a lot of wrist and arm strength, even in the kitchen — for instance, to lift a heavy tea kettle or to unscrew the top of the jar. Strengthening the ankle helps your balance and stability.

What’s your best advice for women?

That strength training is empowering — it’s empowering to the body and it’s empowering to the spirit. And especially as we’re aging, we need to feel empowered.

Strength training is not a difficult thing to do; you can start with body-weight exercises. If you never do anything more than those, you will benefit enormously. You benefit in terms of your quality of life, your independence, your self-sufficiency, your ability to take care of yourself as you're aging and also to maintain your lifestyle. 

Jackie Kennedy's fitness routine included push-ups, one of Pagano's recommended essential exercises, to increase strength. Here, Pagano demonstrates a modified version, called the kitchen counter push-up.

Jill Yanish is the assistant editor of Next Avenue.

Jill Yanishwas formerly the associate editor for Next Avenue.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University and has written for various Twin Cities publications. Read More
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