Leaders of the fitness world are remembering Jack LaLanne, who died Sunday at age 96, as a pioneer who set an example all his life that inspired people of all ages.
LaLanne, widely considered the founding father of the fitness movement in this country, preached strength training and healthy eating long before it was fashionable.
He had a fine singing voice and would often burst into song around Elaine, his wife of 51 years, singing an old standard from World War I.
On Sunday, it was Elaine who sang to him: “If I were the only girl in the world and you were the only boy. Nothing else would matter in the world today. We could go on loving in the same old way.”
“I sang it to him,” Elaine told USA TODAY on Monday, “and he smiled, and it wasn’t that much longer before he passed away.”
LaLanne’s syndicated exercise show aired on television from 1951 to 1984. For many Americans, it was their introduction to the idea of eating right and staying fit.
Russell Pate, an exercise researcher at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, says: “In the course of his very long career, Jack LaLanne motivated millions of Americans to increase their physical activity and fitness. He was a remarkable role model, and he personally demonstrated that it is possible to maintain a very high level of fitness well into advanced age.
“As boomers begin turning 65, I hope that many have learned from Jack LaLanne’s inspiring example.”
Fitness expert Donna Richardson Joyner, a member of The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, says, “He was the pioneer of fitness and health. Because of his vision, love, passion and commitment to fitness and health, he inspired myself and people around the world to take care of our bodies and live better lives.
“Jack paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps by bringing the importance of personal health and physical fitness to the foreground of pop culture. His legacy will live forever. ”
LaLanne, appearing on his show in his trademark tight-fitting jumpsuit, was groundbreaking. He was honest about weight and health, always telling viewers that you had to use up as many calories as you took in. His patter as he counted out each leg lift, curl and tuck was part old-time preacher and part carnival barker.
“You’ve got to work at living. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of Americans work at dying!” he told viewers. “You’ve got to eat right, exercise and have goals and challenges. Exercise is king; nutrition is queen. Put ’em together and you’ve got a kingdom!”
LaLanne was “a weak, sickly child” who gorged on cakes, cookies and pies, he told USA TODAY in 2004 when he turned 90. In 1929, he said, at the age of 15, he had the experience that changed his life. A resident of Berkeley, Calif., he went to hear a lecture about nutrition by Paul Bragg, who “pounded up and down the stage. He had all this energy I wanted,” LaLanne said.
Bragg urged his audience to eat only natural, unprocessed foods, something LaLanne took up with a vengeance. “I actually got on my knees and I said, ‘Dear God, give me the willpower to refrain from eating these foods that are killing me!’ ” he said.
At the end of two weeks, he said, he felt “like an entirely different human being.”
He went from being the butt of jokes to captain of his high school football team and took up bodybuilding, entering competitions. He started his own gym in 1936 in Oakland A precursor of the modern health club, it included a health-food store and a juice bar.
He was “way ahead of his time on multiple fronts — the value of exercise for health, keeping it simple, the importance of exercise in maintaining quality of life, and he appreciated the importance of weight-lifting in maintaining muscle and health as we age,” says exercise researcher Tim Church, director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.
“He was the perfect example of what we call squaring the curve — leading an active and fulfilling life to the very end.”
Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University, agrees. She was the vice chair of the committee that wrote the government’s current guidelines on physical activity.
“He was a wonderful renegade,” she says. “I love that he pushed boundaries. He made people believe in themselves and realize that they underestimate their potential. He made people feel strong.
“He was the pioneer of fitness and health. Because of his vision, love, passion and commitment to fitness and health, he inspired myself and people around the world to take care of our bodies and live better lives. Jack paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps by bringing the importance of personal health and physical fitness to the foreground of pop culture. His legacy will live forever. ”
When he was 81, LaLanne told USA TODAY, “I feel no different now than I did when I was 21. I’m so into what I’m doing, helping people. I’m in as good shape as I was back then. It’s amazing how long one can keep going if one wants to.
“Fitness starts between your ears,” he said. “You have to figure out what you want and then go ahead and do it. Your body is your slave. So many people retire when they get to 55, 60. They send a message to 70 trillion cells, ‘Hey, we’re going to take it easy.’ They don’t burn the calories they used to. And they’re going to get fat.
Even at that age, LaLanne kept up a challenging exercise schedule. “I spend two hours a day exercising. But the average person can do half an hour three or four times a week.. .. I lift weights for at least an hour. And I spend another hour swimming or doing other exercises in the water. It’s all very vigorous.”
He said he changed his program every three or four weeks. “You have 640 muscles, and they all need their share of work,” he said. “If you don’t exercise on a regular basis, it’s like going to bed with a rattlesnake: It’s going to get you.”
The LaLannes were involved in various business pursuits ranging from vitamins to an exercise program for seniors called Better Balance for Life to the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer.
While older Americans remember him from his exercise show, for many younger Americans the couple’s infomercials are their connection to LaLanne.
Elaine says she and the couple’s children, Dan, Jon and Yvonne, plan to keep the business going. “We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, and just because he’s gone doesn’t mean he’s going to stop.”
Their son Dan also is has a cartoon about Jack LaLanne’s story in the works. It’s in pilot production now, Elaine says.
LaLanne died at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday at his home in Morro Bay, Calif., with his family around him, she says.
“On Friday he felt that something was wrong with his breathing,” and tests at the hospital showed he had pneumonia, she says. “So we brought him home and they tried everything, but it didn’t work.”
The family is planning a funeral in Los Angeles for the first or second week in February. “I’m kind of waiting for Arnold’s schedule, he wants to do one of the eulogies,” Elaine says of California’s former governor and body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Arnold loved Jack. He called and talked to me a long, long time” Sunday night.