From legends of their sport, to people who have innovated the way we approach fitness, each person on this list has made a permanent and irrefutable mark on the fitness industry.
Spanning numerous genres, from bodybuilding to swimming, tennis to martial arts, the people who have made their impact on the athletic masses each have their own compelling story.
Whether you were inspired by Ronda Rousey showing the world exactly how tough women can be, or Tiger Woods who took over the golf scene and made it infinitely more approachable, these people are each paragons of fitness who have inspired countless people to restart, reinvent, and recommit to a healthy lifestyle.
Michael Jordan – Legendary Basketball Player
Even in an age with phenomenal talents like Steph Curry and LeBron James, all of today’s great players owe a lot to the legacy of Michael Jordan. Arguably the most successful and famous athlete of all time, Michael Jordan is inspiring in every facet.
From his early days where his high school coach famously cut him from the team, to the logo of his Air Jordan’s capturing his dunk from the free throw line, Michael Jordan’s invincible skills on the court are nothing short of legendary. See his stats for yourself.
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Arnold Schwarzenegger – Multi-Talented Bodybuilder
Most people know Arnold for his many high-profile endeavors, like being the quintessential action movie star and the 38th governor of California.
But before all that, Arnold defined himself as a champion bodybuilder, winning Mr. Olympia at age 20, and continuing to win the title seven additional times.
Born in Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger was told early on that his accent would prevent him from being a star in America, but after starring in dozens of films, it’s clear that nothing can stop Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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Richard Simmons – Passionate Exercise Guru
Anyone who watched TV in the 1980 and 1990’s remembers the enthusiasm and iconic look of Richard Simmons.
Owning a gym in Beverly Hills called Slimmons put Richard in position to do TV appearances, and he used the opportunity to spread his intense passion for aerobic exercise.
With an emphasis on helping people attain a healthy weight, his numerous appearances on popular shows like the Late Show with David Letterman and the Howard Stern Show have inspired many Americans to hit the gym for the first time.
Using exercise to overcome his own childhood obesity, Richard Simmons continues to help millions of people with his remarkable passion and energy. Check out his “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.”
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Ronda Rousey – Showed the World that Women Can Fight
Female fighters have been around for decades, but not until Ronda Rousey did they get the respect they deserve. After winning a bronze medal as a Judoka in the 2008 Olympics, Ronda went on to have the most dominant career in the history of MMA, male or female.
From 2011 until 2015, Ronda won 11 matches, all but one in the very first round. Multiple magazines have named her the most dominant female athlete of all time, and at the peak of her career, Ronda was the highest paid athlete in the UFC, an organization ran and dominated by men.
While other women went into the cage with a casual attitude, Ronda was prepared for war, and millions of girls around the world saw how tough a female fighter can be.
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Royce Gracie – Introduced Brazilian Jujitsu to the World
Most major American cities now have at least one school dedicated to Brazilian Jujitsu, and that is because of one man, Royce Gracie. Although Gracie Jujitsu was invented by his father Helio, it was Royce who used it to dominate in the early days of mixed martial arts.
Entering in his jujitsu uniform with his team of black belt brothers at his back, Royce went on to win UFC 1, UFC2, and UFC 4, before fighting Ken Shamrock to a draw in UFC 5.
He did this at 176 pounds at a time when there were no weight classes, so more than once he choked out opponents who outweighed him by a significant amount.
To this day, no fighter enters the octagon without a thorough knowledge of Brazilian jujitsu, and that fact is due to the success of one man, Royce Gracie.
Serena Williams – Dominant Tennis Champion
Tennis was widely considered a relatively preppy sport that has traditionally been dominated by white athletes.
That is until 1995, when Serena and Venus Williams began their meteoric rise that would single-handedly change the way women’s tennis is viewed forever.
With 22 Grand Slam titles in single matches, 14 doubles championships, and four gold medals, the secret to Serena’s success can be attributed to one word: Power.
Once the Williams sisters set foot on a tennis court, all the stereotypes of women’s tennis go out the window. Serena’s powerful tennis play put both her and her sister in a league of their own, and made her the highest paid female athlete of 2016 making over 28 million in awards and endorsements.
Michael Phelps – Most Successful Olympian Ever
No one in history has inspired more people to hit the local pool than Michael Phelps. Nicknamed “The Baltimore Bullet”, he lived up to the title by winning 28 medals, and holding multiple records, including one for most gold medals at 23.
Completely dedicated to spreading the importance of fitness throughout the world, Phelps used his one million dollar bonus from Speedo in 2008 for philanthropic pursuits, founding the Michael Phelps foundation to promote active lifestyles.
Even if he chooses to never swim again in his life, Michael Phelps has made a massive impact on the world of fitness that won’t soon be forgotten.
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Jillian Michaels – Biggest Loser Coach and Fitness Guru
In any topic of tough, influential women in fitness, Jillian Michaels deserves a significant mention. Arguably the most successful personal trainer alive, Jillian’s work on the hit show, The Biggest Loser has directly and indirectly dealt a major blow to obesity.
The show proved beyond any doubt that proper diet and exercise are keys to losing weight in a healthy manner, and Jillian’s role in making the show a success was vital.
Five foot two inches of pure fitness fury, Jillian pushed, yelled, and ultimately inspired millions of unhealthy people to get off the couch and lose weight, thereby adding valuable years to their lives. See her “Ripped in 30” exercise program for more info.
Magic Johnson – Hall of Fame Basketball Player Who Survived HIV
Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, HIV and AIDS were terrifying terms that most people assumed were a death sentence.
After a staggeringly successful career in the NBA which included a rivalry with Larry Bird and five championships with the LA Lakers, Magic Johnson suddenly retired in 1991 stating that he contracted HIV.
While the world was shocked at the dire diagnoses, Magic again surprised everyone, this time by single-handedly proving that you can live a happy and effective life while HIV positive.
With the dual legacy of enlightening the world of the reality of HIV, and being known as the man who can dominate a basketball game with masterful assists, Magic Johnson is a legend who has changed the way we view fitness forever.
Jack Lalanne – Fitness Expert Spanning Multiple Decades
Known as “The Godfather of Fitness”, Jack Lalanne led and promoted a fit lifestyle that kept him going until the age of 96. Touting the benefits of fitness before any of the other fitness gurus, Jack Lalanne hosted a fitness show on television for 32 years, from 1953-1985.
Jack was known for taking fitness very seriously, and believed that the strength of the country depended on the physical fitness and health of its people.
Jack holds numerous records that may very well never be broken, including one where he towed 70 rowboats the length of one mile in Long Beach Harbor. It should be mentioned that he was handcuffed, shackled, and 70 years old at the time.
Lance Armstrong – 7 Time Tour De France Champ and Founder of Livestrong
Perhaps no other athlete has had such a dramatic rise and brutal fall from grace as Lance Armstrong. Winning one Tour de France is an amazing feat, and from 1999-2006, Lance went on to win seven in a row.
America’s love for Lance Armstrong was compounded by the fact that he had survived testicular cancer, and used his recovery from the experience to found the Livestrong foundation.
Much of his career was plagued with doping allegations which he denied vehemently, but in a federal case in 2012, Armstrong confessed that he used a slew of banned substances throughout his career.
This resulted in all of his titles being rescinded, but the fact that he reignited a love of cycling within millions of Americans can’t be taken away.
Mike Tyson – Hardest Hitting Boxer of All Time
Although dozens of champion boxers have made their marks on the world, none wielded the savage knockout power of Mike Tyson. During the reign of Mike Tyson, it became the norm for fighters who stepped into the ring with him to get knocked out in the first round.
The story of Mike Tyson is a colorful one, and his accomplishments include being the youngest boxer to win major heavyweight titles at age 20, and earning 44 knockouts throughout his illustrious career.
Known as Iron Mike for his ferocity, ESPN.com gave him the number one spot on their list of the hardest heavyweight hitters of all time.
With a presence that ranges from popular video games like Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, to movies like The Hangover, Mike Tyson has inspired many to learn boxing, and has pushed the boundaries of what a powerful fighter is capable of.
Misty Copeland – First African American Ballet Dancer
An absolute prodigy, Misty Copeland became the first African American woman to get promoted to principle dancer in the history of American Ballet Theater.
To make it in the upper echelons of ballet is a difficult endeavor for anyone, but especially for a girl who doesn’t fit the centuries old norm.
Not only did Misty excel as one of the leading ballerinas in the country, but she’s spreading the success by writing multiple books, voicing a documentary, and earning high-profile sponsorships such as Under Armour.
Misty’s recent performances of Swan Lake have earned cheers so loud they stop the show, and with over 500,000 followers on Instagram, it’s clear that many inspired fans are following her bold achievements.
Bruce Lee – Popularized Martial Arts and Changed Asian Stereotypes
Known as the legendary Chinese movie star who fought to bring Kung Fu to Caucasians, Bruce Lee was way ahead of his time when it came to fitness. Friends stated that he kept dumbbells in every room of his house, and a few exercises, like “The Flag”, are specifically attributed to him.
Bruce Lee had a deep understanding of fitness and nutrition, and as early as the 1970’s, he commented that the body cannot reach its potential by eating junk food.
Bruce Lee released multiple books, but Tao of Jeet Kune Do, the book that detailed his martial art and philosophies on training, stands as his most valuable literary work.
Before Bruce Lee, Asians did not have a powerful perception in America. But after he attained the reputation as the greatest martial artist and action film star, the stereotype of athletic Asians was changed forever.
Dr. Drew Pinsky – Brings Legitimate Health Info to America’s Youth
With an uncanny ability to appeal to America’s youth with real health and fitness knowledge, Dr. Drew has served as a guiding light for teens with health, sex, and social problems for over 30 years.
While thousands of doctors have a desire to reach the masses with practical health advice, Dr. Drew realized that partnering with the people who teens respect was the way to reach them.
He accomplished this primarily by hosting shows like Loveline, a show that invited trendy guests to talk about realistic health issues that face troubled youths.
Dr. Drew has been clearing up falsities about health and fitness, and spreading useful health advice to those hard to reach students and teens who need it most.
An avid fitness advocate, there’s no doubt that Dr. Drew’s guidance has helped thousands quit their bad habits and pursue a healthy lifestyle.
Simone Manuel – First Black Woman to Win Gold as a Swimmer
When Simone Manual tried out for the 2012 Olympics, she came up a bit short, coming in 20th place in the 50 meter freestyle. While that might dissuade some people from continuing their swimming career, it didn’t stop Simone Manual for a second.
Joining Stanford’s swim team in 2014, Simone proceeded to shatter multiple records, including the 50, 100, and 200 meter freestyle.
When trying out for the Olympics again in 2016, Simone fared much better, and at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Simone Manual set numerous records, becoming the first African American woman to earn a gold medal in a swimming event.
With a perseverance and athleticism that anyone can admire, Simone Manual blazed a trail for African American swimmers everywhere.
Michelle Obama – Used Position to Encourage a Fit Lifestyle
Regardless of your political leanings, the positive impact that Michelle Obama has had on fitness in America cannot be denied.
Planting an organic garden in the White House, installing bee hives, and writing a book called American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America are a few of the ways that she showed her passion for a healthy diet.
But her crowning achievement and legacy as First Lady will be her founding of the Let’s Move! campaign in February of 2010.
Designed to combat the rapidly growing problem of child obesity, Let’s Move! encourages local officials and citizens to get involved in improving the dietary and fitness habits of children.
Some of the impressive accomplishments of Obama’s program include new healthier diet plans for Disney, the Department of Justice, and numerous schools throughout the country.
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Tiger Woods – Child Prodigy and Golf Legend
It’s pretty common for legendary athletes to start young, but none as much so as Tiger Woods. At age two, Tiger Woods appeared on the Mike Douglas Show to show off his golfing prowess to Bob Hope, and at age five, Tiger appeared on the cover of Golf Digest.
His father was a talented athlete and golfer in his own right, but by the time Tiger was 11, his father never beat him at golf again.
After going pro in 1996, Tiger’s unparalleled skill on the course singlehandedly rekindled the nation’s love of golf. Among his accomplishments are 79 PGA victories, the title of “Athlete of the Decade” by Associated Press, and being the second highest paid African American of all time next to Oprah Winfrey with over 700 million in career winnings.
Tim Ferriss – Author and Human Optimization Pioneer
After changing everyone’s perspective of what it really means to be rich with “The 4-Hour Work Week”, Tim Ferris directed his efforts towards fitness and nutrition, with “The 4-Hour Body” and “The 4-Hour Chef” respectively.
A master at compiling the absolute most useful information about anything and boiling it down to a simple explanation, Tim Ferris is an innovator in the worlds of fitness and self-optimization.
His “Slow Carb Diet” has helped thousands of people lose weight, and his talent for meta-learning, or teaching people how to learn skills at a much more rapid pace, has earned him popularity through multiple TV shows, books, and one of the most downloaded podcasts in existence.
Greg Glassman – Founder and Owner of CrossFit Inc.
If any invention has changed the way we view fitness in the last decade, it’s the phenomenon known as Cross Fit. From both a business and physical standpoint, there has never been any fitness program to rise in popularity as rapidly as Cross Fit.
Emphasizing functional movements that span the ten quintessential areas of fitness, Cross Fit is a fitness program that uses a wide array of equipment to achieve a complete, full body workout.
With new workouts each day known as WOD’s, Cross Fit has taken over the fitness world, getting both men and women more fit than ever thought possible.
Who Inspires You to Train Harder?
People from different walks of life will find different sources of inspiration. A young woman who always wanted to try competitive tennis may find the inspiration by watching the William’s sisters dominate the court.
A youth who grew up watching basketball might stay fit by trying to replicate the elite skills of Jordan or Curry. Whichever athletes have changed the way you view fitness, it’s those who strive through adversity that end up changing the hearts and minds of fans.
Load up on even more inspiration: Fitness Motivational Quotes
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- Updated on March 29, 2019 by Ada Lane