02/08/2012 04:45 EST | Updated 04/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Fitness guru Richard Simmons keen to help those in need outside the spotlight

TORONTO - With his high-wattage personality and bedazzled exercise attire, Richard Simmons brings a touch of the theatrical, whether leading a workout or generating laughs in countless TV appearances.

But there is a serious side to the perennially upbeat fitness guru, particularly when it comes to helping those in need outside of the spotlight.

On a given day, Simmons said he phones 40 to 50 people who are in despair over their weight.

"I have these calls I do every day that are lifelines to people. Some are in rehab centres, some in homes housebound, don't talk to a lot of people," he said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.

"It's what I live for. I'm really not a social person. I don't go out unless I'm working. Don't leave the house. I don't go to movies. I don't go out to eat."

He pauses.

"Excuse me," whispers an emotional Simmons, his voice breaking momentarily before recovering.

"I don't have that part of a life. My whole life is what I do to help people, and it seems to make me the happiest. And you know, I'll say, 'Well, let me call five more people' or 'Do I want to see a movie?' The five people always win.

"I'm really a clown and court jester and I love to make people feel good," he added. "But you know, my work is very serious because people trust me with their lives — and that you cannot take lightly."

Despite tens of millions of workout videos sold and decades devoted to helping people get in shape, Simmons continues to push ahead with a relentless schedule that has the 63-year-old travelling 200 days a year.

Simmons will be in Woodbridge, Ont., on Sunday along with "So You Think You Can Dance Canada" star Blake McGrath and disco diva Gloria Gaynor at the inaugural Dance to Conquer Cancer fundraiser hosted by the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation.

Participants in the four-hour dance-a-thon are being challenged to dance 10,000 steps with moves from the '70s and '80s. The high-energy Simmons will bring a taste of his famed "Sweatin' to the Oldies" workouts, leading a class to a soundtrack of "all disco, hot, sexy, sultry music."

Simmons said he receives 500 requests a year to do personal appearances, and took part in a breast health fundraiser in Halifax in 2010.

He likes to diversify his personal exercise routine, encompassing aerobics, Pilates, spinning and weights. But Simmons has no plans to abandon the dance-inspired, sweat-inducing workouts that have become his signature.

"There's all different kinds of music and movements, but this is what I enjoy doing the best because everyone knows how to take four steps back and four steps front; so I try to teach things that are not intimidating."

Simmons has customized exercises for a wide audience, including DVDs for seniors and physically challenged children.

He continues to focus on helping those needing exercises tailored to suit their physical capabilities who may have difficulty finding alternatives — particularly among the high-impact workout programs typically touted on the airwaves.

"When's the last time you saw an infomercial about physically and mentally challenged children and adults with MS and Prader-Willi (syndrome) and cancer exercising in a chair? When's the last time you saw an infomercial when they had seniors from 65 to 90 doing a workout?" Simmons asked.

"It's just all trying to focus in on the same people. And I don't do that."

While he's had his fitness studio, Slimmons, for more than 30 years, Simmons said one of his ultimate dreams would be to open a health spa for families to exercise, cook, eat and "embrace life." In the meantime, he's looking forward to forging connections with participants in Sunday's fundraiser.

"Seeing what happens to them while taking one of my classes, and seeing them become jubilant and filled with self-worth — it's like Tinkerbell putting the fairy dust on everybody."