Remembering Fitness Legend Jack LaLanne

The great popularizer of exercise passes away at age ninety-six

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If you ever wondered who inspired the term, "jumping jack," now you know. Jack LaLanne, American fitness and health guru, has passed away of respiratory failure due to pneumonia age ninety-six. Known for his chiseled persona, extraordinary acts of physical prowess and his television exercise program, LaLanne is seen as a "spiritual father" of the modern fitness movement. He's also credited with being far ahead of his time in his nutritional advice, urging Americans to "replace white flour, sugar, and devitalized foods with live, organic, natural foods." Health reporters look back at what made the Jack LaLanne legend:

  • How His Fitness Regime Began  There was a time before Jack LaLanne became Jack LaLanne: it was his awkward, candy-filled adolescent years that inspired the man to become perpetually fit. A Los Angeles Times obituary written by Claudia Luther recounts the story of how, when he was a child, "his mother spoiled him, giving him sweets as a reward." During adolescence he became a "sugarholic" and developed a "violent temper and suicidal thoughts" while failing in school and being "weak and skinny." After inspiration from nutritionist Paul Bragg, LaLanne resolved to be the "strong person he wanted to be" (to be an athlete and get "the girls to like me"). "LaLanne took Bragg's message fully to heart," writes Luther. "And, by his own testimony and that of everyone around him, he never had cake, pie, ice cream or any sweet from that day forward, nor did he drink a single cup of coffee or tea."
  • His Message: 'It's Never Too Late To Get in Shape'  Huffington Post contributor John Robbins notes that when LaLanne "encouraged the elderly to lift weights, doctors said this was terrible advice," now his pointers have been "vindicated a thousandfold." As a living example of "never to late to get in shape," LaLanne performed enormous stunts at milestone "senior" ages: "On his 60th birthday, he swam from the notorious Alcatraz island prison to San Francisco while handcuffed, towing a thousand-pound boat....On his 65th birthday, Jack LaLanne towed 65 hundred pounds of wood pulp across a lake in Japan. On his 70th birthday, he celebrated by towing 70 rowboats with seventy people on board for a mile and a half across Long Beach Harbor, all while handcuffed and with his feet shackled." And, in his 90's "Jack was a living testimony to the value of regular exercise and a healthful lifestyle."
  • His Mission: Entreating America 'to Join Him in His Quest for Physical Perfection'  His fitness mission was a call for Americans of all ages to get in shape in whatever way they could, and LaLanne developed the tools for them to get there. The Guardian's Haroon Siddique recounts that he "used his television show to promote his Power Juicer, which found its way into many US kitchens, and is still going strong today." And his LaLanneisms have, over the years, permeated pop-culture: "If man makes it, don't eat it," and "If it tastes good, spit it out".
  • His Legacy: 'How Far Ahead of His Time He Really Was'  In 2004, John Eliot, an expert in the psychology of fitness and health, told USA Today this: "What's really fascinating is how far ahead of his time he really was...At the time, coaches told [athletes] not to do weightlifting stuff because it was bad for them. It wasn't until the late '70s, when the Dallas Cowboys hired the first strength coach, that people paid real attention." The reflection was noted by USA Today blogger Anne Oldenburg, who also took stock of Jack LaLanne's last update on his website: "Hope you all are keeping your New Year's Resolutions to taking care of the most important person on this earth, YOU!!!!"
  • What He's Learned: In His Own Words  Esquire interviewed LaLanne in 2004, here's a snippet of what he told the magazine:
I'm going to be ninety in September. Everybody else can have a piece of the birthday cake, but not me. I have rules, and I follow 'em. No cake, no pie, no candy, no ice cream! Haven't had any in seventy-five years. It makes me feel great not eating birthday cake. That's the gift I give myself.
Any stupid person can die. Dying's easy. Living's a pain in the butt.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.