Forever Young Jack LaLanne (1914-2011): A Tribute!

Jack LaLanne is best known as the fitness movement's most vocal and appealing cheerleader. He was living proof of the power of exercise and proper eating. Read on as we pay tribute to a great fitness evangelist.

In his later years, Jack LaLanne would tell reporters who brought up his longevity, "I can't die. It would wreck my image!" With apologies, Jack, for all the things you were so right about, on this one point you could not have been more wrong.

It was reported yesterday that Jack LaLanne had died from pneumonia. Perhaps the most surprising thing about a 96-year-old's passing is that it feels like such a shock. Who can be blamed for thinking he was beyond death's grip? With the possible exception of Jesus, no man in history has made as strong a pitch for immortality.

He's best known as the fitness movement's most vocal and appealing cheerleader, but he was more than an ambassador. He became living proof of the power of exercise and proper eating, an idealized image of how we all might feel into our 60s, 70s, and beyond.

Of course, there was a muscle-and-bone man behind the idealized image, and although that man was technically born on September 26th, 1914, he (admittedly) didn't actually begin living until one particular day when he was 15.

The story that Jack told at his seminars and in countless TV appearances is of a young boy who ate nothing but sugary treats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The diet made him so weak and sickly that he was forced to drop out of school.

The pimples he developed left him ashamed to be seen in public and he became nearsighted. He suffered blinding headaches regularly and long bouts of depression. "I was a sugarholic!" he would exclaim in later years. "I was a junk food junkie!"

His mother, alarmed by the deteriorating condition of her son, dragged the boy to a seminar held by pioneering nutritionist Paul Bragg at the Oakland City Women's Club. Over the course of the lecture, the young LaLanne would discover a path out of his personal hell. Two paths, actually: exercise and nutrition.

After the seminar, Jack went backstage to Bragg's dressing room, and the two discussed a game plan for how the boy could save his own life. Bragg promised LaLanne that if he followed a fitness and dietary regimen, he would not only see all his ailments disappear, but transform himself into a vital, strapping young man.

"That night I got down on my knees, by the side of my bed and I prayed," LaLanne would later recount. "I didn't say, 'God, make me a Mr. America.' I said, 'Please give me the willpower and intestinal fortitude to refrain from eating wrong, lifeless, dead foods when the urge comes over me. God, please give me the strength to exercise when I don't feel like it.'"

In the 80-plus years of life he enjoyed following that propitious meeting, Jack LaLanne's prayers would be answered in spades, as he not only managed to overcome his personal temptations but also positively influence the lives of millions the world over.

Remembering Jack: A Singular Impact

By the time you read this, there are likely dozens of factual accounts of the highlights of Jack LaLanne's life flooding the Internet. While the scope of his life is as important as it is expansive, I'd like to share an example of a singular impact he made.

My personal connection to Jack goes back some 40 years, to when I was a small boy attempting to keep up with his mother as she exercised in front of the TV to The Jack LaLanne Show.

From that time on, I took an interest in the doings of Jack LaLanne-whether it was catching one of his hyperkinetic TV appearances or reading in awe about one of his preternatural birthday feats . In time, I developed a genuine fondness for the guy, and as I became further involved in the fitness industry as a magazine writer, I would often reflect on his profound impact on my life.

Jack's Amazing Feats
(As reported on Jack LaLanne's web site)
  • 1954 (age 40): swam the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, underwater, with 140 pounds (64 kg; 10 st) of equipment, including two air tanks. A world record.
  • 1955 (age 41): swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco while handcuffed. When interviewed afterwards he was quoted as saying that the worst thing about the ordeal was being handcuffed, which reduced his chance to Star Jump significantly.

On September 11th, 2004, I had the chance to meet Jack LaLanne and his wife Elaine for the first time at their home in Morro Bay, California. As a physique industry scribe, I have been privileged to meet all of my boyhood idols-from Joe Weider to Arnold Schwarzenegger-but Jack came into my cognizance long before any of the others. Seeing him in person for the first time-in his signature jumpsuit, of course-was a thrill that can never be matched.

Jack was weeks shy of turning 90 at the time, but his crushing handshake felt like that of a man half his age. I couldn't have been more pleased. Nor could I have been happier to oblige when he demanded I perform multiple sets of pushups interspersed with jumping jacks, right there in his living room.

Although I was one of many reporters who would be visiting the LaLanne home during the weeks surrounding his 90th birthday, Jack was energized for my visit and eager to answer my questions, as well as offer up answers to ones I hadn't even asked.

Ever the evangelist, he continually drilled into me the importance of regular exercise and a diet based on whole foods. He took me into his home gym, showed me how much he could lift, and pushed me through an abbreviated chest workout.

Jack's Greatest Tips
Want to emulate the long and miraculously fit life of Jack LaLanne? Follow these guiding principles, and you just might live to 96-or beyond-yourself:

  1. If man makes it, don't eat it.
  2. Eat natural foods whenever you can-six servings of raw vegetables and five pieces of fruit everyday!
  3. Use a juicer to get your daily dose of raw fruits and vegetables.

Throughout the interview and the workout and the lunch we later had at his favorite restaurant (he had salad, of course), he brimmed with the vital energy of a true believer. Young Jack LaLanne had been saved 75 years earlier; here was old Jack LaLanne--a fully fledged evangelist for the Church of Health and Fitness--doing his darndest to make a true believer out of me. The irony is that he'd already succeeded in doing so more than three decades earlier.

Over the years, I'd see Jack and Elaine again-at his 90th birthday party in Los Angeles, at Joe Gold's memorial service, at Joe Weider's birthday party, and at various other events where men of iron gathered. Each time I approached him, he would test me, with a punch, a shoulder squeeze, or at the very least a vice-grip handshake.

And each time I was truly happy to see him; because of the childhood connection, because of his concern that I should still be exercising, and in part because he made me believe that if he could live forever, then so could I.

While Jack LaLanne, the man, may have passed away on January 23rd, 2011, Jack LaLanne, the ideal, is still very much alive-in every person who endeavors to pick up a weight or go for a jog or reach for an apple instead of a candy bar. And if we follow his lead and pass his teachings along to the subsequent generations, then a little bit of immortality awaits us all.

Exercise in peace, Jack. Don't worry; your image is fully intact.