Fit to Be Fit

updated 04/17/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE MAKESHIFT EXERCISE STUDIO is already in place on a San Diego beach as Maria Serrao arrives for a taping of her cable show, Everyone Can Exercise. As the camera rolls, the 5'4", 107-lb. fitness instructor leans forward in her wheelchair, grabs the handles of an inverted exercise bicycle and begins to pedal with her arms. Soon she is drenched with sweat. "When people see me working out like this, they act like I'm going to break or something," she says. "It's amazing the preconceptions people have about the disabled."

Serrao means to erase those preconceptions. Paralyzed from the knees down since childhood, she has made a career of proving that the physically handicapped can also be physically fit. In 1991 she launched Everyone Can Exercise, the first nationally syndicated cable fitness program targeted specifically at the disabled. Last year she released a home video with the same name, which has sold 25,000 copies. She has since produced a sequel, Cardio Challenge. "There are millions of people in this country who are permanently disabled or recovering from a disability," says Serrao, 31. "Ninety percent of them don't exercise."

But as Serrao demonstrates, the disabled are capable of doing many of the routine exercises performed by able-bodied people—with slight modifications. Sitting in her wheelchair, she places a rubber resistance band across her back and holding the ends, pulls them forward, working the same muscles used in push-ups. "I tell my audience over and over they can do it," she says. "When they see what I've overcome in my own life, they feel confident too."

The youngest of four children born to William Serrao, an electrical contractor, and his wife, Mary, a homemaker, Maria was just 5 when a drunk driver hit the car her mother was driving not far from their Thousand Oaks, Calif., home, sending it over the side of a freeway embankment and into a ditch. Mary Serrao escaped with only a cracked vertebra in her neck. Maria was less lucky. Both her legs were paralyzed.

Doctors delivered a grim diagnosis: Maria's spinal cord had been permanently damaged; she might be bedridden for life. But William Serrao would hear none of it. When his daughter was released from the hospital two months later, he started her on an aggressive exercise program that included roller skating with special leg braces and swimming. By age 8, Serrao was swimming 100 laps a day. Remarkably, six years later she had regained limited sensation above her knees. "It was hard," she says of the regimen. "But my dad knew I liked nice clothes, so he'd motivate me by giving me money. It worked."

But Serrao had plenty of gumption herself. Despite being wheelchair-bound, she modeled for Mary Kay Cosmetics and took acting classes. When she was 16, she talked her way into an interview with a local talent agency, which led to a small part in the 1980 film Inside Moves with John Savage. After graduating from high school, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. In 1989, she landed her first TV role, playing a physically challenged rape victim on 21 Jump Street. That was followed by parts on General Hospital, Knots Landing, Cagney & Lacey and Diffrent Strokes.

Serrao's busy work schedule cut into her exercise time, and by 1990 she had gained 50 pounds. Tired of swimming but determined to shed the weight, she went to local gyms looking for a workout program but was turned away. "They acted as if handicapped aerobics was an oxymoron," she says. Serrao even approached a plastic surgeon about liposuction. "He told me, 'No way. You'll never be thin in a wheelchair.' "

Finally, Serrao met Linda Lewis, an L.A.-based personal fitness trainer. Together they modified a standard workout program, designing exercises that included aerobics, stretching and weight training—as well as a low-fat diet. It worked so well for Serrao—she lost 50 pounds in a year—that the two women approached a local San Diego cable company about a fitness show for the disabled. Everone Can Exercise premiered in November 1991 and is now carried in 25 markets nationwide. "Maria's trying to set a standard for physically challenged people," says fitness star Kathy Smith, whose own videos have sold 7 million copies. "Now when someone gives me an excuse about not being in shape because of a sore knee or ankle, I just laugh. Maria's proof that there's really no excuse. She's an inspiration."

Serrao's career has left her little time for a personal life. "I'd like to be able to give 100 percent to a relationship, but right now I just can't," she says. "Sometimes guys are put off by the wheelchair, but more often, they're put off by my personality, my drive. I'd like to find a guy who isn't intimidated by me, by the fact I'm ambitious."

Serrao's objectives go beyond mere videotape. "I want to change the mentality that disabled people are supposed to mope around and feel sorry for themselves," she explains. Her dream project: a TV police series in which she plays a physically challenged detective. "Of course there are obvious limitations in my life, things I simply can't do," she says. "But what's right with me is so much more important than what's wrong with me. My goals and my love of life are stronger than my disability."

JAMIE RENO in San Diego

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