There’s something very no-nonsense about fitness guru Erin O’Brien. Maybe it’s her clear, steady gaze or the way she doesn’t sugarcoat the truth (or much of anything, for that matter). The word “capable” comes to mind, and it’s reassuring to learn that this is a woman who is focusing her considerable capabilities on improving the health of her generation – and the ones that follow.
The 42-year-old Shakopee, Minn., native comes by her straightforward Midwestern style honestly, and it shows in workout DVDs like Prenatal Fitness Fix (Acacia, 2006), in which she dashes off-screen for a bathroom break, and in Postnatal Rescue (Acacia, 2007), where she comes across as much like a good friend as she does a fitness coach.
To O’Brien, fitness means empowerment, and empowering women is the favorite part of her job.
“When I first got into fitness, it was about who could lift the most weight. But I believe in strength, flexibility and balance, so I approached teaching in a different way,” she says. “By doing so, I found my niche and garnered a pretty large following.”
There’s also more than a little bit of Hollywood in O’Brien’s past (and not just because she’s married to Desperate Housewives hottie James Denton). She received her masters of fine arts from New York University in 1991 and spent the next 10 years shuttling between New York and Los Angeles, landing various theater and small-screen gigs. To fill in the gaps, she began teaching aerobics classes at Manhattan’s prestigious Body Design by Gilda studio and eventually transitioned into fitness full time.
“I found the ‘I hope they like me’ mentality of constant auditions to be psychologically distressing,” she says. “I always said if I found something I loved more than the craft of acting, I’d do it. And I have. Teaching women how to exercise is the most noble profession I could have thought of.”
O’Brien met the similarly down-to-earth Denton in 2000, and the two married in 2002, a second marriage for both. They settled in Los Angeles and wasted no time starting a family. Today, the two are parents to son Sheppard, 4, and daughter Malin, 2.
Training pregnant women has been a speciality of O’Brien’s for quite some time, and she admits she used to treat her pregnant clients with kid gloves. That was before she became an expectant mother herself, though. “There are a lot of preconceived notions about what pregnant women should do, but I listened to my body, and it said, ‘You can do more!'” she says. “There’s plenty of research that supports exercise during pregnancy, but even so, very educated people would come up to me and ask, ‘Should you be doing that?’ I’d answer, ‘Well, I’m the pre- and postnatal specialist here, so don’t worry, I’m in good hands.'”
Her approach was so rare that Prenatal Fitness Fix (filmed when she was seven months pregnant with Sheppard) came about because she couldn’t find anything on the market that was challenging enough.
And it’s a good thing she was up to the challenge – she credits her perseverance through a traumatic labor to her fitness level. “My labor with Sheppard lasted 49 hours, and both my doctor and my midwife were in disbelief that I didn’t have to get a C-section,” she recalls. “It was only because I was fit that I was still able to walk the halls when I was 10 centimeters dilated.”
But the complications O’Brien encountered didn’t end with the birth. “The postpartum period was much more devastating than I’d originally thought it would be,” she says. “For one thing, I didn’t just pop back into shape. I had my first child at 38 and my second at 40, so I was fighting a slowing metabolism – but having some muscle mass really helped me get back on my feet.”
Family life has her moving at top speed again, especially since she heads up the health and nutrition duties in her household, a fact her husband deeply appreciates. “I’m from the South, so I’d eat deep-fried everything if I could,” says Denton, 44. “I can 100 percent guarantee you I’d be 20 pounds heavier if I weren’t married to Erin, and even if I didn’t care how it looked, my heart would notice.”
O’Brien is taking her next career cue from her children. “My new focus is going to be kids’ health. We have a childhood obesity epidemic on our hands, and cities like L.A. have eradicated physical education from the curriculum,” she says. “It just seems like cutting off your nose to spite your biceps.”
She’s currently working with HOPSports, a California-based company that offers multimedia instructional tools to PE teachers, to help bring fitness back into the schools. “Their programs aren’t competitive, and they teach heart rate and the importance of cardiovascular fitness,” she says. “Kids could play math games while they move, and also learn how to be healthy for a lifetime.” And that, in O’Brien’s view, is the first goal of fitness – for every generation.