For Health Regimens, Jack LaLanne was Way-y-y Ahead of His Time
If you’re like me, you remember Jack LaLanne on a flickering B&W TV with your Mom doing calisthenics over a chair holding a few large soup cans. But a look at the amazing life of LaLanne reveals that he practically invented the modern exercise and diet orthodoxy
Born in 1914 to French immigrants and growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Jack LaLanne was once by his own admission, scrawny, weak, and addicted to sugar and junk food, while having a vicious temper. His epiphany was at 14 years old, when he listened to health food pioneer Paul Bragg speak about the evils of sugar and meat. He then set himself upon a diet and exercise regimen that was light years ahead of its time, while he more or less built the prototype of the modern gym system.
LaLanne was not alone in advocating exercise, or being part of the 30s bodybuilding movement. What sets him apart is his devotion to exercise AND diet, while targeting both men and women (kids and seniors). Early bodybuilders such as Vic Tanny and Joe Weider (whose ads used to be seen in old comic books, featuring skinny kids getting sand kicking in their faces) were targeted more to “muscle men” while LaLanne’s regimen was more wholistic. In addition, LaLanne more or less invented the modern exercise gym and its equipment, first developing the selective weight and cable systems in use today (while prior there were simply barbells, which were in short supply).
LaLanne himself was interesting as he exercised into his 90s, and can be held up as an example of the benefits of exercise in senior years. He said some interesting things, about how others popped pills for aches and pains, lack of sleep, or later developed dementia, which all could have been avoided if they’d simply exercised and ate right. LaLanne’s diet regimen consisted of fruits, vegetables and fish, with some vitamins and nutritional supplements (which he marketed on his show). If memory serves, his supplements were natural and non-commercial by today’s standards (yogurts, vitamins, minerals, and fish oils). He was big on drinking fruit and vegetable juices, and marketed his own juicer.
An avid swimmer, LaLanne would perform swimming stunts on his birthday in the San Francisco Bay. When he was 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf while shackled and towing a 1,000 lb boat. When 70, he towed 70 boats (with 70 passengers) for 1.5 miles in Long Beach Harbor. He employed his second wife Elaine (I know, Elaine LaLanne, haha) to help him become a diet and exercise staple on television, mostly for stay at home Moms. Along the way, he alone was the first to even HAVE a television exercise show (which started in 1953), and whose format was copied later by many, many others. He also voiced early warnings against processed foods, which was also wayyyy ahead of his time (most TV shows at the time were SPONSORED by processed food companies, LaLanne never accepted the advertising of any such foods).
What strikes me as so amazing about all this, was LaLanne broadened the health and exercise culture beyond the “he-man” culture of the 30s, when few other than boxers, wrestlers, and soldiers worked out (most lived on farms and did chores or manual labor then, and perhaps didn’t see the need). In particular, he targeted urban-dwellers and stay-at-home Moms, who didn’t have access to gym equipment (while providing said gym-equipment to others). That he got these Moms to do calisthenics with large soup cans and chairs now seems to me a kind of genius, while making exercise fun and advising on the margins a sort of “Blue Zone” diet and lifestyle. Above all, he was hyper-enthusiastic and had a sense of humor (when asked in his 70’s whether all the exercise improved his sex life he said “Elaine and I have sex almost every night…almost on Monday, almost on Tuesday, almost on Wednesday…”)
A 54 year old Jack once beat 21 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger in a strength contest, after which Schwarzenegger exclaimed “Jack LaLanne is an animal”. On the occasion of LaLanne’s death, Schwarzenegger credited LaLanne for being “an apostle for fitness” by inspiring “billions all over the world to live healthier lives” As governor of California, he had earlier placed him on his Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness. Steve Reeves credited LaLanne as his inspiration to build his muscular physique while keeping a slim waist.
It’s weird to think of Jack LaLanne as anything other than a short, hyperactive guy on a boring B&W TV soundstage telling your 60s Mom to lean over a chair with two Chef Boyardee cans (while selling Yami Yogurt during his on-set commercials), but I’m thinking that he was some sort of historic genius. We all took him for granted, thinking that his was just another exercise show, but his was actually the original, and the model for all others. In addition, he either invented (or helped invent) gyms and gym equipment, in a rather humanitarian effort to get all of us to exercise (which turns out to be about the best thing we can do). He never sold out to the packaged or processed food industry (which he distrusted). He was also one of the first to warn of the dangers of sugar and hydrogenated oils (transfats), at a time when TV was selling that stuff hard, in the form of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Twinkies, and Crisco. How did he know all this? Did Jack LaLanne come from a planet with advanced beings? More likely he happened into a transforming life experience, and had the brains/guts/energy to take appropriate action.
In any case, hats off to Jack, who died in 2011 at age 96, healthy as could be in old age, and testament to the extreme benefits of exercise and good diet.