"I'm as puzzled as you are," Jones, Simmons' former assistant, tells PEOPLE

By Julie Mazziotta and Liz McNeil
March 22, 2017 01:41 PM

After 35 years of working with the high-energy Richard Simmons, his assistant doesn’t understand why the fitness guru would go into hiding for the last three years — but he respects Simmons’ decision.

“I’m as puzzled as you are,” Elijah Jones, who started working for Simmons in 1982, tells PEOPLE. “But I’m not in a position to tell you what is going on inside Richard’s head that is causing him to behave this way. That is not for me to say.”

“I wish I could drag him out of the house or downstairs to see me, but I can’t make that intrusion. Friend or no friend. I have to respect that person’s privacy.”

Like Simmons, Jones was overweight as a child. Growing up in Mississippi, Jones hit an all-time high of 484 lbs. before he discovered Simmons’ show and dropped 300 lbs. He wrote Simmons a thank-you letter and was flown out to Los Angeles for a taping. From there, he worked his way up the ranks and eventually became Simmons’ assistant.

What happened to Richard Simmons? Close family and friends give PEOPLE the real scoop on the beloved fitness guru’s mindset during his three years out of the spotlight in the latest issue, on stands Friday.

Richard Simmons cover

Although Jones has since moved back to Mississippi to live with his ailing mother and now works part-time on Simmons’ website, he says he last saw the fitness instructor in 2014. Jones says he chats on the phone with Simmons’ housekeeper, Teresa Reveles, “at least” once a week.

“I saw him in L.A. [in 2014] and we talked. And Richard has talked about retirement on and off for quite some time. I didn’t take him seriously — but that’s what he said he was going to do,” Jones says.

Jones doesn’t believe Simmons’ seclusion has anything to do with his health.

“I don’t get the impression he is depressed,” Jones says. “I think he’s enjoying his very private life right now, and after all the energy and activity he had before, maybe he wanted some down time.”

Teresa Reveles, Elijah Jones, and Richard Simmons (L-R)
| Credit: Courtesy Elijah Jones

“He likes his privacy and he likes the life he’s living right now, and I can’t speculate why he has chosen to that, but this is his choice.”

Still, Jones would love to see his friend again.

“My heart is broken,” Jones says. “I miss him dearly. You can’t work for someone for that long and not be spiritually connected.”

And the last time they saw each other, Jones says he told Simmons about all the people who love him.

“He did not respond but based on the 35 years I with him, when he doesn’t say anything, that can be him taking it in. We both had tears in our eyes and we both ended up crying,” Jones recalls. “I’m going to get emotional — I believe my Richard Simmons is going to come back to us.”