In the 1980s, exercise was in. Fueled by the sculpted deltoids of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, men flocked to gyms and snatched up Soloflex machines; women donned leg warmers and emulated Jane Fonda as she demonstrated aerobics on VHS.
One demographic was noticeably absent from this televised fitness craze—kids. Although most had physical education in schools, there was little guidance on how to work up a sweat in their off-hours.
Sensing a void in the market, the Disney Channel introduced a daily program dubbed Mousercise. And it was exactly what it sounds like. Moms had a Body by Jane. Their kids had a Body by Mickey.
Unlike the Disney+ streaming service of the modern era, the Disney Channel was something of a special privilege when it premiered in April 1983. The channel—which was available to cable subscribers for a $10.95 monthly premium (around $29 in today’s dollars, or more than twice the $12.99 cost of Disney+)—split its daily 16 hours of airtime between movies from the Disney library and original programming like the behind-the-scenes Disney Studio Showcase and Contraption, a game show for kids.
Mousercise was among the first original programs to air, but the concept actually pre-dates the Disney Channel. In 1982, the company released an album and booklet also titled Mousercise, which set music from Disney films like Mary Poppins (1964) and The Jungle Book (1967) into rhythms that were suitable for exercise. Clarence Nash, who voiced Donald Duck, recorded audio for the record; Disney hired a “Miss Mousercise,” an actor and former Miss Hawaii named Teri Ann Linn, to make public appearances.
“Anyone can do Mousercises, even Goofy,” Linn told her young charges.
But when Mousercise evolved from an album to a television show, Linn was out. The half-hour series instead featured host Kellyn Plasschaert encouraging kids to get off the couch and move.
The difference between Plasschaert and other fitness personalities was that she was usually accompanied by Mickey himself—rather, a sweaty participant in a Mickey costume, who was likely baking under studio lights as Plasschaert moved to kid-friendly bops. (All of the exercises were age-appropriate for the intended 5- to 10-year-old demographic and approved by a children’s hospital in California.)
“People sometimes ask me how I feel being upstaged by Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse,” Plasschaert told The Shreveport Journal in 1983. “To tell you the truth, it doesn’t bother me a bit. I feel privileged to be on the air with these legends and I am honored that I have been selected to promote the Disney Channel.”
Plasschaert, an actor and stuntwoman who had appeared on Days of Our Lives and in television commercials, was uniquely qualified for the job: She was a longtime dancer who had once led a Jane Fonda-approved workout session at a health spa. She also had the patience necessary to lead kids on stage and at home.
“You don’t want kids to approach exercise as a chore,” Plasschaert said. “You’ve got to keep your energy level up, and you’ve got to make exercise fun. The Disney characters help us do that. When Mickey and Donald walk on the set, they bring a certain magic with them. The children want to exercise with them.”
Like game shows, Mousercise was often able to tape a week’s worth of shows in one day; Plasschaert also embarked on a 30-city tour to promote both the program and the Disney Channel. The end goal, she said, was to hopefully get offered roles in Disney Channel original movies, though it's not clear whether that ever transpired.
For viewers who didn’t subscribe to the Disney Channel, the company eventually offered a home video version of Mousercise in 1985. For $39.95, kids could follow along with Plasschaert, who was described by one reviewer as “dauntingly energetic.” Another critic observed that the actor dressed as Mickey “can’t keep up with the kids and drops out after the first series of stretches.”
Both the show and video offered Health Breaks, segments designed to explain the tenets of fitness and nutrition to juvenile viewers, which included the somewhat alarming admonition to “keep those buttocks tight.”
Mousercise aired from 1983 until 1996, becoming one of the Disney Channel’s longest-running programs, though it’s not known exactly how many original episodes were produced. A second Mousercise album was released in 2005 and featured songs like “A Whole New World.” In 2019, the company introduced an apparel line using the Mousercise iconography, which was followed by a revival of the program by teachers and influencers leading physical education classes online using the Mousercise albums. Whether the show may find new life on Disney+ remains to be seen, though it’s likely Mickey will still have trouble making it through an entire routine.