Founding father of fitness: Jack LaLanne has encouraged generations to get off the couch and into the gym."You're going to have to slow down and talk louder, son," says the wavery voice on the other end of the phone. A few seconds of awkward silence pass before Jack LaLanne, the 94-year-old proclaimed "Godfather of Fitness," cackles merrily, his booming voice echoing in the receiver. "I'm kidding you, son. Let's go!" He lets the words pour from his mouth like a raging river for the next hour. His energy, confidence and contentment are infectious. An hour on the phone with Jack LaLanne, and you're ready to run three marathons, back to back.
If you're over the age of 40-something, you're already familiar with Jack LaLanne and his never-ending mission to transform every American into a fit, healthy machine. If you didn't grow up watching his nationally syndicated fitness show--the first of its kind--you should know that LaLanne, at 94, is probably stronger than you. This is, after all, the man who towed 65 boats for more than a mile in a lake near Tokyo. Not impressed? Keep in mind he was handcuffed and shackled while he swam. Oh, and the boats were loaded with more than 3 tons of Louisiana Pacific wood pulp. LaLanne did it to celebrate his 65th birthday.
Jack LaLanne's devotion to fitness and healthy eating helped him build an entertainment empire. In 1951, he starred in the first exercise show on television. The Jack LaLanne Show was syndicated a few years later, and though critics said it would fail, LaLanne kept entertaining (and working out) America for 34 years. He's written books to inspire people to live clean lifestyles, promising them longer life, more energy, even better sex. His health spas gave birth to the modern public gyms of today. He was the first to develop weight machines and sell exercise equipment on TV. And his Jack LaLanne Power Juicer continues to sell thousands of units every year. Fame and fortune are all well and good, LaLanne says, but his mission hasn't changed since he opened his first gym in 1936. "I want to help as many people help themselves as I can," he says. "People line up [after motivational talks] to thank me. That's my reward; it's not about money."
Gaining a Healthy Attitude
But before LaLanne could save the masses, he had to save himself. By the time he was 15, he was "a sick, weak kid addicted to sugar." Thirty pounds underweight, covered in acne and boils and suffering from a volatile temper, LaLanne spent his days munching on cakes, pies and ice cream. Concerned about her son, his mother strongly encouraged him to attend a talk by health expert Paul Bragg. "She was very convincing when she wanted to be," LaLanne says with a chuckle. Bragg told his audience to live by the laws of nature--eat healthy, natural foods and exercise. For LaLanne, it was the inspiration he had been searching for. He came home, got down on his knees and prayed to God to give him the strength to change his life.
Strength hasn't, been a problem for LaLanne since. He began exercising, eating natural foods and transforming his body. "I wanted to be an athlete; I wanted girls to like me," LaLanne admits. He studied chiropractic medicine and became obsessed with weightlifting. By the time he opened his first health spa in Oakland, Calif., in 1936, LaLanne had tossed aside his selfish boyhood desires in exchange for a new mission: to help as many people as he could.
His spa was a success. LaLanne encouraged women and the elderly to lift weights right alongside men. He developed predecessors to modern-day weight machines as an alternative to the more challenging free weights to make it easier for novice gym rats to work out. "Doctors said women weren't to lift weights or they'd get too big and muscular; older people will drop dead of heart attacks," LaLanne recalls. None of it deterred him, and his gym grew in popularity, but he still wanted more.
In 1951, a friend walked into LaLanne's spa with a proposition for a TV show and asked him to audition in Hollywood. He won the chance to host the show, which quickly became a hit with prominent actors looking to stay in shape. "People do whatever movie stars do," LaLanne says. The show became a nationally syndicated institution for the next three decades. More important to LaLanne, he finally had a large enough forum to spread his message across the country.
"Anything in life is possible," he says. "You control your life--it's all up to you. The food you eat today is walking and talking tomorrow. You have to ask yourself, 'What can I do to help myself?'" LaLanne took his own advice, illustrating what exercise could do for the body by performing thousands of pushups, chin-ups and star jumps on his show. Anything was possible if you just applied yourself, he told the watching public. In 1954, at age 40, he proved his point by captivating the entire world when he swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge with 140 pounds of equipment strapped to his body. A year later, he swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco while handcuffed--something deemed humanly impossible by local law enforcement. "Why did Jesus perform miracles?" LaLanne asks. "To call attention. That's why I did those things, to attract people to my cause. When I swam from Alcatraz, it drew international attention to the cause."
Building Business Strength
LaLanne used his increasing fame to reach the public anyway he could. In addition to his show, LaLanne spread his gyms across the nation. By the time he sold his spas to the Bally Fitness Company, he had a stable of more than 200 properties. He continues to write inspirational and cooking books, and he promotes his juicer as a way for people to enjoy healthy, natural food sources. He gives motivational speeches year-round. He was an inaugural inductee into the National Fitness Hall of Fame and has won countless awards, accolades and accommodations for his more than a half-century of service, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the national Dwight D. Eisenhower Fitness Award and the State of California Governor's Council on Physical Fitness Lifetime Achievement Award.
Through it all, LaLanne never stopped amazing the public with his feats of strength and endurance. Each one thrust him back into the limelight and brought home his message of what healthy living could accomplish in a way no TV show or inspirational words could. In 1984, as his show was entering its final year, LaLanne, then 70, cemented his status as a legend when he swam 1.5 miles while towing 70 boats with 70 people from the Queen's Way Bridge to the Queen Mary Bridge ... while handcuffed and shackled, of course.
His dedication to fitness is admirable, but so is his business sense. When asked to explain how he's been able to remain relevant in the public consciousness for almost 60 years, LaLanne scoffs as though it's an obvious point. "I believe in what I'm doing." It sounds simple, and to LaLanne, it is. If life has taught him anything, he says, it's that a strong will and a belief in yourself are all it takes to achieve whatever goal you've set for yourself.
LaLanne says there are plenty of people in America just like him--people with great ideas that could blossom into successful businesses. It's up to them, though, to nurture those plans. "Everyone is a genius in his own way, but you have to bring it out to make it happen," he says. "You have to work at it and you have to believe. You can't just dream your way to success."
Reaping the Benefits of Fitness
Even at 94, LaLanne is too busy to dream, keeping a schedule many people 70 years his junior would envy. He rises early and immediately hits the gym. He still lifts weights and swims, mixing up his routines every 30 days to keep himself fresh and interested. His workouts last about two hours, and, while he admits that he can't work out like he used to, he doesn't let it bother him, telling himself to "forget about what you used to do and focus on today." As for days off, LaLanne dismisses them, saying he can't remember a day since he was 15 that he didn't work out somehow.
Not that he doesn't feel like he's earned a little rest and relaxation. These days, you're likely to find LaLanne cruising the California coast in his maroon Corvette convertible, brimming with the energy of a man who has devoted his life to squeezing every ounce of vitality from his body. "I'll keep doing what I'm doing," LaLanne says, before offering up one of his patented lines. "I can't die; it would ruin my image." When asked about the rumors that he'll swim to Santa Catalina Island from the coast (some 20 miles), he laughs like a man confident in the knowledge he could do whatever he pleased. "My wife says if I do, she'll divorce me. 'Promise?' I ask." Apparently Jack LaLanne takes chances with his health after all.