Fitness guru who fed America’s hunger for healthy living
By David Gelles
Published: January 28 2011 23:46 | Last updated: January 28 2011 23:46
Self-improvement, that restless striving for a better life, is as central a tenet as any to the American psyche. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin implored citizens of the new nation to be frugal, industrious and modest. A hundred years later the writer Henry David Thoreau sought the optimum balance of solitude, study and nature, in his book Walden. There is no one correct formula, but people keep searching for it nonetheless.
In the 20th century, this impulse for self-improvement collided with capitalism and celebrity. The pursuit of well-being, now more populist and commercial, was perhaps best embodied by Jack LaLanne, the compulsive exerciser, calorie counter and motivational speaker who came to be known as “the godfather of fitness”. LaLanne, who has died at the age of 96, pioneered healthy living during a career that spanned different industries and the media, and helped establish the multi-billion dollar fitness market.
The transformation was instantaneous. “I became a voracious reader and I absorbed everything that would help me to improve myself,” LaLanne said. His favourite book was the medical tome Gray’s Anatomy, which informed his knowledge of human musculature. LaLanne began lifting weights for hours every day and took to a lean, bland diet. “If it tastes good, spit it out,” he liked to say.
After graduating from high school and earning a chiropractic degree, he opened a health club in Oakland, California, where he encouraged visitors to drink fruit juice and use devices of his own design to stretch. In an era before fad diets and modern gyms, such methods came across as dubious at best. “People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” he said.
Yet LaLanne found a following. His network of gyms grew, as did his reputation as a good-natured and earnest trainer who delivered results. In the 1980s he licensed his network of more than 200 gyms to Bally’s Total Fitness, which took them over.
His looks did not hurt his mass appeal. Square-jawed, constantly smiling, with a shock of black hair and a perfectly sculpted body, LaLanne would have looked at home on the silver screen. His waist was small but his shoulders impossibly broad. “Your waistline is your lifeline,” he said. He took to wearing a short-sleeved blue jumpsuit, which became his signature outfit.
By 1951 he was well enough know to warrant his own television programme at the dawn of the TV age. The Jack LaLanne Show featured the host explaining health techniques and performing exercises, including his signature fingertip push-ups. It ran for 34 years, making it the longest-running exercise show in history.
He promoted a range of vitamin supplements, exercise equipment and household appliances. He wrote 10 books, including Fiscal Fitness: 8 Steps to Wealth & Health, helping to pioneer the business for self-help books. Just over a year ago, he celebrated his 95th birthday with his final offering: Live Young Forever.
After a first marriage failed, he wed Elaine Doyle in 1959. Ms Doyle, also a “junk food junkie” when she was a child, joined him in promoting the healthy lifestyle. With him well into his 90s, the pair still exercised together regularly and, they said, had sex almost every night. She and their son survive him as does a daughter from an earlier marriage.
He mostly ate raw vegetables and egg whites, with the occasional piece of fish. He did not drink coffee, but took many vitamins. “Stay away from animal fats and processed foods,” was his dietary advice. “Read every food label, and if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t buy it. Buying nutrient-empty foods is like putting water in the gas tank of your car.”
Once squarely in the public eye, he tallied up a number of improbable accomplishments. In 1955, LaLanne swam from Alcatraz, the island prison, to San Francisco, with handcuffs on. The next year, he swam across the treacherous Golden Gate Channel while towing a one-and-a-half-tonne boat. At age 60 he repeated his handcuffed swim from Alcatraz, this time towing a 1,000-pound boat. Ten years later, after most men his age had retired, he donned shackles and handcuffs and towed 70 boats from the Los Angeles harbour to a cruise ship 1.5 miles away.
For these feats, his impact on American health and his business acumen, he was recognised and idolised. He was a founding member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness under President John F. Kennedy. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilder turned actor and politician, met LaLanne on a stretch of Los Angeles coastline called “Muscle Beach” and remained close to him. Upon learning of LaLanne’s death, Mr Schwarzenegger said: “Now Jack, for so long the most energetic man in the room, can finally rest, knowing that he left the world a better and fitter place than he found it.”
“Life,” LaLanne once said “is like an athletic event. You’ve got to train for it. You’ve got to eat right. You’ve got to exercise. Your health account, your bank account, they’re the same thing. The more you put in, the more you can take out.”
Restless and uncompromising in his pursuit of fitness, LaLanne sought to improve his own composition and disposition – and America’s – for nearly a century. It was hard work, but it paid off. “Living is a pain in the butt,” he once said. “Dying is easy.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.