Jack LaLanne was a typical teenager. He ate fast food and candy, loved soda pop, had acne, and didn’t exercise much. But at age 15 his mother took him to hear a lecture by health food pioneer Paul Bragg. Bragg asked LaLanne what he had eaten in the last 24 hours. After hearing “cakes, pies, ice cream,” Bragg told him he was “a walking garbage can” but that he could become healthy, fit, popular, smart, and happy if he exercised and ate right.
From that day forward, LaLanne said he never had sweets again. He dedicated himself to studying nutrition, exercise, and the body. He studied anatomy and chiropractic medicine in school, and bodybuilding. This was in the 1930s, when most doctors believed that weight lifting and running for exercise would give people heart attacks and erectile dysfunction. In 1936, at age 21, Jack opened his first gym/health spa in Oakland, CA, one of the first in the country. He invented the first weight pulley systems for working out and preached a low-fat diet rich in fruits and veggies, with no refined sugars. People thought he was nuts.
But LaLanne was a visionary. For more than six decades, LaLanne proved that fitness and diet were the keys to health and wellness, and that such things could be both manly and American. He had the first syndicated fitness TV show, which featured a buffed LaLanne in a one-piece pantsuit with bulging biceps and black ballet slippers doing exercises that could be done at home with a broom or a chair. He also offered meal plans, recipes, and pep talks. “Good nutrition, exercise, and positive thinking—it’s that simple!” he told his viewers. He preached that women, the disabled, and the elderly all needed exercise to maintain strength. He formulated and sold supplements, vitamins, and exercise equipment.
To show naysayers otherwise, in his 40s he began to do publicity feats of strength and endurance such as swimming from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in handcuffs and swimming the Golden Gate towing a boat. At age 60, he repeated the Alcatraz to the Wharf swim, this time in handcuffs, shackled, and towing a 1,000-pound boat. At age 70, handcuffed and shackled, he towed 70 row boats with 70 people from the Queen’s Way Bridge in Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary. “Why do you think I do these incredible feats? To call attention to my profession!" LaLanne said. “To me, this one thing — physical culture and nutrition — is the salvation of America."
Born Francois Henri LaLanne (he was nicknamed Jack by his brother) in San Francisco on September 26, 1914 to French immigrant parents, he grew up in Bakersfield and Oakland. His father, a dance instructor, died of a heart attack at age 50.
Some of LaLanne’s favorite sayings included, “You eat everyday, you sleep everyday, and your body was made to exercise everyday;” “Inactivity is the killer and, remember, it’s never too late!” and “I can’t die, it would ruin my image.”
Into his 90s, LaLanne maintained a two-hour daily workout of weightlifting and swimming and ate at least 10 raw vegetables and 5 fresh fruits a day. He died at age 96 of respiratory failure from pneumonia on January 23, 2011 at his home in Morro Bay, CA.
- Pia Hinckle