Known as the “Godfather of Fitness,” Jack LaLanne probably did more to shape American culture in the 20th century—by shaping up Americans—than anyone. At 21, he was already a body builder and gym owner at a time when devoting so much attention to developing muscles was viewed as an oddity. “People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” LaLanne said later in a 2005 interview. “The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive.”
That was in 1936. The only other prominent body builder on the scene, Charles Atlas, was advertising in comic books about how “a 97-pound weakling” overcame the bullies on the beach by taking the Atlas mail-order course and becoming a muscular strongman. He was not serious competition for LaLanne who by 1951 had launched what was to be the longest running exercise program on TV, The Jack LaLanne Show, on air for 34 years until 1985. The daytime TV show, which went national in 1959, fueled a national fitness craze, making a celebrity out of LaLanne as he promoted the benefits of exercise and diet, way ahead of exercise gurus like Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons. On TV, LaLanne wore a short-sleeved jumpsuit, which came to be his signature, and used minimal props, including a broom, a chair, and a rubber cord. He later introduced several of his own inventions, including the first leg extension machine and pulley devices, and marketed vitamin supplements and juicers. Meanwhile, he expanded his initial exercise studio into more than 200 gym clubs around the country.
To attract the television audience of housewives who were home during the day-time hours, LaLanne used his white German Shepherd dog Happy to first get the attention of their kids and told them to go wake up their mothers. LaLanne’s wife Elaine—whom he had met at the local TV station—was also on the program, showing women how to do the exercises. In the 1950s, women were not used to exercise and worried about becoming too muscular. Elaine LaLanne was on the show to assure them they would not lose their femininity or their figures by exercising.
Now, in the 21st century, such distrust of exercise seems almost quaint. There is, some say, almost a religious emphasis today on keeping trim and fit, with the guilt to go with it if people skip the gym. In 2011, with 67 percent of Americans aged 20 to 74 counted as either overweight or obese, such emphasis is not misplaced. The Biggest Loser, a television program about people with major amounts of weight to lose, became a popular reality show. Even the first lady, Michelle Obama, launched a “Let’s Move” campaign in 2009 to advocate exercise and combat childhood obesity.
Indeed, there is a flavor of righteousness about being in shape, eating right, and maintaining the proper weight that seems very American. Jack LaLanne once compared himself to the evangelist Billy Graham, saying that physical culture and nutrition are “the salvation of America.” As Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic for the New York Times, put it, “The Protestant work ethic pulsed through every one of [LaLanne’s] jumping jacks” (a 2-part jump with legs spread and arms overhead, then feet together and arms at side). His were serious routines, whether for himself with his famous fingertip push-ups or for his gym clientele, and they were not always easy or fun. LaLanne believed you had to work it; none of this “lounge fitness” spawned by exercising to Nintendo’s Wii at home.
In 2010, gym memberships in the United States brought in $19.1 billion, not counting the purchase of exercise equipment like treadmills, or clothing, classes, or personal trainers. Though LaLanne’s fitness studios are no longer on the scene (he eventually licensed them to Bally Total Fitness), he is still a household name in an age when being fit and following a proper diet seem practically written into the Constitution. Former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, put LaLanne on his Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and called him “an apostle for fitness” who had inspired millions to live healthier lives. He was awarded the President’s Council Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, and in 2008, Schwarzenegger appointed him to the California Hall of Fame. LaLanne was also given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and during the induction ceremony in 2002 did push-ups on the star (at the age of 88). Among many other awards, he had been appointed by President John Kennedy in 1963 as a founding member of President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
The whole fitness movement got its start and biggest impetus right after World War II when it was made known that nearly half of all draftees were unfit for combat and had to be rejected or assigned to desk duties. By 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower had inaugurated the President’s Council on Youth Fitness to let the nation know about its low fitness levels and the importance of physical exercise. President John Kennedy in the 1960s renamed it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, called Americans “soft,” and said they were “under-exercised.” Government pilot programs for fitness were introduced for schools, where physical education curriculums were expanded.
New programs like aerobics and tests for fitness were introduced as, increasingly, the link between a sound mind and a sound body was recognized, something the ancient Greeks, who built gymnasiums all over their nation to train young men and women, had always known. In colonial United States, even Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson advocated physical exercise. However, as agricultural life segued into the Industrial Revolution in the United States and Europe, lifestyles changed and people became more sedentary.
President Theodore Roosevelt, at the beginning of the 20th century, was a strong advocate of exercise and physical fitness, but after the rigors of World War I, in the 1920s, people found other priorities and during the Depression, programs for physical fitness were not on the agenda. The U.S. population was generally not even aware for the most part of the need for exercise. But, with the advent of television and programs like Jack LaLanne’s (and, later, those of Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons), Americans learned about the need to be fit and were motivated to work on it. When the baby boomers began to come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, the fitness movement took off and doctors and athletes began advocating the health benefits of exercise. Corporations began to install fancy gyms and fitness centers for employees. In the “Me” decade of the 1980s, it was a status symbol to join a gym and show off a fit body. New exercise regimes like yoga and Pilates and new exercise machines propelled the fitness craze into the 1990s and into the new century. Even toddlers could work out at Gymboree, a nationwide chain of gyms and classes just for children. President Ronald Reagan installed exercise machines in the White House and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama made it known they worked out regularly. As Time magazine noted in a cover story on the fitness craze, “Improving the body has become an enduring, and perhaps historically significant, national obsession.” Jack LaLanne, ahead of his time, had laid the groundwork for a new era of health and fitness—a culture of exercise—for Americans.
What’s striking about LaLanne’s career as a fitness guru is that, growing up, he was an admitted junk food addict. He suffered from bulimia, headaches, and temper tantrums, dropping out of school when he was 14. The following year he went with his mother to a lecture given by health food expert Paul Bragg, whose discussion of health and nutrition was a wake-up call to LaLanne. He said it was as if he had been born again. He changed his eating habits and started working out every day, went back to school, and made the football team. When he graduated, he went on to earn a degree in chiropractics at Oakland Chiropractic College in San Francisco and launched a fitness club—the Jack LaLanne Physical Culture Studio, a gym, juice bar, and health food store in an old office building in Oakland—and continued his own bodybuilding, weight-lifting regime.
Later, LaLanne wrote that the average American diet of “ice cream, butter, cheese, whole milk” was “high-fat eating” that caused high blood pressure and made people feel “sick and fouled up.” His own father died at the age of 50 of a heart attack, attributed partly to poor nutrition. LaLanne himself ate only two meals a day, eating breakfast after a two-hour workout of hard-boiled egg whites, a cup of broth, oatmeal with soy milk, and fruit. Dinner consisted of raw vegetables, egg whites, and fish. His mantra for nutrition: “If man made it, don’t eat it.”
LaLanne followed and advocated a disciplined health regimen: Wake up early (he got up at 4:00 a.m. to work out), do cardio exercises as well as weights, eat only twice a day (no snacks), no meat or sugar, eat raw food (he ate at least 10 raw vegetables a day), avoid processed food (“if it tastes good, spit it out,” he said), take your vitamins, exercise the whole body (“there are 640 muscles in the human body,” he said, claiming he designed exercises to take them all into account), and exercise even if you are elderly or disabled. Until he died at the age of 96, LaLanne followed a regular bodybuilding routine, with two hours of workouts, weight lifting, and a swim against an artificial current. At 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds or so with a 30-inch waist, LaLanne claimed that he did not like working out but did it to stay healthy and feel fit. At his home in Morro Bay, he had installed two gyms and a pool.
Further solidifying his reputation as a formidable bodybuilder were LaLanne’s feats of performance, doing things like 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes on a TV show, swimming the Golden Gate channel in San Francisco pulling a 2,500-lb cabin cruiser, and swimming handcuffed from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf, twice, once at the age of 60. He claimed that he pulled these stunts to get people to believe in him. He became known for his “LaLanneisms,” pithy remarks about health and fitness such as “Your waistline is your lifeline,” “Eat right and you can’t go wrong,” and “Your health account is like your bank account: the more you put in, the more you can take out.” LaLanne wrote a number of books, including two cookbooks, and appeared in movies (as himself) and on the television shows Batman and The Simpsons.
He was born Francois Henri LaLanne in San Francisco on September 26, 1914, the youngest of the three sons of two French immigrants, Jennie and John LaLanne, who had come to the United States from Oloron-Saint-Marie in southwest France. His father worked for the telephone company. LaLanne’s older brother, Norman, called him “Jack” and the nickname stuck. The family moved to Bakersfield, California, and then to Berkeley while he was growing up, and LaLanne later settled in Morro Beach, California. He was married for 51 years to Elaine Doyle with whom he had a son, Jon (he had been first married briefly to Irna Navarre, with whom he had a daughter, Yvonne). Elaine’s son from her first marriage, Dan Doyle, as well as Yvonne and Jon continue LaLanne’s work in the family business, BeFit Enterprises.
Seemingly immortal, Jack LaLanne once said, “I can’t die. It would ruin my image.” He lived to be 96, succumbing to the respiratory complications of pneumonia on January 23, 2011, at his home in Morro Beach, California. A pioneer of the fitness movement that consumes many people today, LaLanne left an enduring legacy of health and exercise to Americans.
Goldstein, Richard. “Jack LaLanne, 96, Father of Fitness Movement, Dies.” The New York Times, January 25, 2011, A25.
LaLanne, Jack. Live Young Forever: 12 Steps to Optimum Health, Fitness, and Longevity. Ontario, CA: Robert Kennedy Publishing, 2009.
LaLanne, Jack. Web site, www.jacklalanne.com