Remembering Jack LaLanne
Okay, it's time to put the elliptical trainer on pause, or get up from your yoga mat or weightlifting bench, and join in a moment of silence to honor the man who, as much as anyone else, got Americans started doing all this exercising. I'm talking about workout and motivational pioneer Jack LaLanne, who passed away Sunday at 96 at his home in Morro Bay, Calif.
LaLanne wasn't of our generation, but his influence on us was almost as enormous as the 2,000-pound boat that he towed while swimming a mile across the Golden Gate channel in 1975 to celebrate his 61st birthday. For a lot of baby boomers, our first exposure to the idea that we could work out and change our bodies came from LaLanne's TV exercise show, which debuted in 1951 in San Francisco and went nationwide on ABC in 1959.
Watch this vintage video clip on LaLanne's website and you'll remember why he made such a powerful, transformational impression on us. Charles Atlas was just an ad in the back of comic books, as unbelievable in his leopard-print loincloth as Superman or Captain America. We put more faith in what we saw on the tube, and there was handsome, wavy-haired Jack LaLanne, an actual human with his ham-sized biceps bursting out of his sleeves, striding onto the set and smiling radiantly as he urged us to breathe deeply. (Cue the organ music.)
Sure, LaLanne's outfits -- the skintight cutaway jumpsuit, and those bedroom-slipper-like shoes -- were a bit bizarre, and the relentless barrage of uplifting aphorisms -- such as "Exercise is king, nutrition is queen, put them together and you've got a kingdom" -- were a tad too peppy. But that musculature bursting out of LaLanne's clothes like the mountains on a bas-relief world globe and the irrepressible energy he exuded ultimately were the proverbial proof in the pudding. (Of course, LaLanne, raw foodist that he was, probably would have advised us to eat fresh prunes instead.)
LaLanne liked to remind us that he hadn't always been such a vibrant hunk. As a youth growing up in Northern California in the 1920s, as the story went, he was a lethargic stringbean with bad skin. Then at age 15 he attended a lecture by nutrition guru, bodybuilder and open-water swimming buff Paul Bragg, who counted Teddy Roosevelt among his pupils. Bragg inspired young Jack to abstain from refined sugar, coffee and processed foods and to study Gray's Anatomy (the textbook, not the TV drama) to understand the human body and how it could be systematically trained to look and perform better. You could see the results -- and that was the cornerstone of LaLanne's gospel of self-improvement. If he could do this, he preached, so could everybody, if they just tried and stuck with it. Before there was Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar or all the other motivational success gurus, LaLanne led the way. He was totally egalitarian. He wanted women to exercise and eat right -- kids, too. As the video below shows, he even got his dog, Happy, into the act.
In 1936, the self-taught fitness expert had opened his own gym in Oakland, one of the first private fitness centers in the nation. (The more famous Gold's Gym, in the Los Angeles area, didn't open its doors until 1964.) According to Gina Kolata's 2004 history of the workout movement, Ultimate Fitness: The Truth About Exercise and Health, LaLanne had to give athletes the keys to work out at night when no one was around, so that their coaches wouldn't chastise them for lifting weights; back then, strange as it may seem today, strength training was derided as bad for flexibility and coordination. LaLanne eventually opened a string of gyms and helped create the industry that has put a Bally's, Gold's Gym or L.A. Fitness on practically every street corner in the nation.
In his later years, after his TV career wound down, LaLanne took up a new challenge. He wanted to persuade Americans that they could remain fit and healthy -- or if they weren't that way, improve themselves -- even as they aged. It was the same message that gerontologists and exercise physiologists conveyed, but somehow, it was more convincing to hear it from Jack LaLanne.
At 92, he gave this WebMD interview, describing how he still got up early every morning for an hour and a half of pumping iron and a half-hour swim. He still had the willpower to stick to a diet of mostly vegetables, fruits, egg whites and a small amount of fish and soy protein. (He joked that when he went out for dinner with his wife, he told the waiter, "I want 10 raw vegetables, and I don't care what it costs.")
So let's all salute Jack LaLanne, who helped make it not just possible, but fashionable, for all of us to be fitness fanatics and to insist on having healthy food to eat. But more than that, he showed us that being fit could help us to be happier and to feel better about ourselves. As he told WebMD, "They used to call me a crackpot. Now the doctors are recommending it. I feel so good. I feel like I've won a battle."
Update: On Feb. 1, Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several celebrity fitness gurus will take part in a "Celebration of Life" for LaLanne in Southern California.
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