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The Rhode Island roots of Tony Horton & P90X

June 8, 2011

Local channel-surfers are no doubt familiar with the infomercials for Tony Horton’s P90X, which tout the ability of most people — regardless of their age — to transform themselves into ultra-buff (“Get absolutely ripped in 90 days”) examples of humanity.

It turns out that Horton has some Rhode Island connections, as I discovered from a recent NYT Sunday business story, The Fitness Revolution Will be Televised (After Leno). It described Horton’s rise from modest roots (including being born in Westerly and attending URI):

He is the pitchman and wise-cracking star of a brutal, make-it-stop workout called P90X, and he has won converts from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. The singer Sheryl Crow, the sportscaster Erin Andrews, the former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, Representative Paul Ryan and a dozen or more of his Congressional colleagues, and the list goes on and on.

P90X fans swear by the workout, a mix of jumping, yoga, martial arts and strength training that, in fact, isn’t all that revolutionary. But the secret of P90X’s success is the marketing: Mr. Horton and his business partners say they have built a $400-million-a-year empire on what, to many, might seem like a foundation of schlock: TV infomercials.

The thrust of the story is how Beachbody, the California company behind P90X, hopes to tap the bigger market of overweight Americans who can’t even think of keeping up with P90X.

Back to Horton. This URI article from last year offers more of his Ocean State back-story, before the fame and riches:

Horton arrived on the URI campus in 1976 as a theatre major hoping to turn his passion into a career as an actor. A football player in high school, he also developed an interest in weight lifting and physical fitness.

“Looking back, it was interesting that my two main areas of interest were on the opposite ends of campus,” said Horton, who was a member of URI’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter. “The theatre was at the top of campus, and the gym was at the bottom of campus. The two passions combined in the middle and led me to my career.”

One of the key lessons Horton learned during a weightlifting class he took at URI has played a pivotal role in his teaching approach with P90X.

“The guy teaching the class was willing to work with me and teach me at a speed and pace at which I could learn,” Horton said. “I never forgot that, and it’s why with the P90X, I show each exercise with three different methods, at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

“If someone is struggling with an exercise, we show them alterations they can make in order to keep pushing themselves. They do what they can, rather than getting frustrated by what they can’t.”

In the summer of 1980, Horton was a handful of credits shy of earning his degree in communications. He was deciding what summer job to take while he finished his course work when a friend asked if he wanted to go out to California.

“It took me about four seconds to think about it and say, ‘Yes,’” Horton said.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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