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Jack LaLanne, the Master of Muscle & Fitness

Jumping Jacks For Jack LaLanne, the Master of Muscle,
Fitness is more than Physical -- it's a Way of Life!

Reader's Digest Feb. 2003 by Margot Dougherty

Even the experts sometimes try taking shortcuts. When Jack LaLanne was in his 30s- this was more than 50 years ago, remember- for a while, he drank a quart of cow’s blood every day. It was a notion he borrowed from the Masai, an African people of legendary strength and endurance. Cow’s blood worked for them-maybe it would work for him too. Then one day there was a clot in the cocktail, and he nearly choked. That was the end of that.

Today, the 88-year-old father of fitness knows-maybe better than anyone else-that there’s no secret potion for health and longevity. Having experimented with all kinds of regimens over the years, he now finds himself back where he started: exercising and eating his greens-lots of them. LaLanne consumers ten raw vegetables and several fresh fruits daily and stays away from sugar, white flour and dairy. “I’m not a suckling calf,” he says. LaLanne is out of bed at 5:30 each morning when he begins his two-hour workout.

“When I started, boy, all the betting was against me,” says LaLanne, sitting in the window-lined living room of his home in Morro Bay, a quiet California Oceanside community. “I was the first person to have 80-year-old guys working out with weights. In the 1930s! The doctors said, ‘You guys go to that Jack LaLanne, you won’t be able to get an erection. You older guys will get heart attacks.’ I’d be six-foot-four if they hadn’t beat me down.” LaLanne, five-foot-six, chuckles. With a recent guest appearance on “Arliss” and a star on Hollywood Boulevard in celebration of his birthday, LaLanne is definitely having the last laugh.

Not that he hasn’t changed with the times. Gone are the ballet shoes and tights. In their place is a cropped black leather jacket, navy knit pants and zebra-print sunglasses. Fresh from an hour of weights and another hour in the pool, he’s downed 40 vitamins and supplements, about six at a time. Now his trusty TV remote is by his side for the big screen that almost touches the ceiling.

“I watch Regis’s show,” LaLanne says. “He was one of my first students. I got him working out about 40 years ago. He still works out. But where Regis blew it, he didn’t go in for the nutrition thing like I do, He had that heart problem.”

Love him, hate him, laugh at him or with him, there’ no arguing that LaLanne is a legend who was decades ahead of his time. He says he’s never had a major illness. He holds Mr. America Best Chest and Best Back honors, and a Guinness world record for his 34-year stint on “the Jack LaLanne Show.” He’s written several big-selling books on fitness, has a website ( selling his philosophy I video, book and even T-shirt form, crisscrosses the country on the lecture circuit (earning up to $12,500 an appearance) and has a new TV ad promoting early arthritis detection. Each month he and his wife, Elaine, 76, hit Florida to appear live on the Home Shopping Network, primarily pushing their new power juicer. “I feel so good,” LaLanne marvels. “I’m helping people to help themselves.”

The son of French immigrants, LaLanne grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and was, by his account, a skinny, depressed, acne-prone weakling addicted to sugar. “I had blinding headaches and an uncontrollable temper,” he says. “I tried to kill my brother on two occasions.” At age 15, LaLanne attended a lecture by nutritionist Paul Bragg. “My mom and I came in late, and there were no seats,” he says. “I was hoping we could just leave.” Instead Bragg pulled him onstage. “My life changed in the next few minutes,” LaLanne remembers.

So ignited by Bragg’s discourse, LaLanne became a vegetarian and cut out sugar. He bulked up, transforming himself in to the school’s most unlikely football star, and began to spread the gospel of good living. His workout of choice was weightlifting, at that time still a relative novelty. And talk about swimming against the tide: He opened his first health club (a coed gym with broadloom carpeting) in 1936- when Lucky Strikes and martinis were still considered the essential relaxation tools.

LaLanne never patented his original weight machines such as the leg extension, but they’re barely distinguishable from what crowd gyms today. On “The Jack LaLanne Show,” which debuted in 1951, he employed Happy, his white German shepherd, to encourage women to get with the program. “I’d talk right to the kids, because they were the ones watching at first,” LaLanne says. “I’d say, ‘Kids, run and get your mom, and I’ll get Happy to do a trick for you!’”

Hollywood got hooked. “Some of the big starts like Betty Grable and Bette Davis used to have coffee klatches and exercise with Jack LaLanne in each other’s homes,” he says. “The papers picked this up. If the stars are with you, everyone’s with you. I lucked out.”

LaLanne had indeed made the big time. To prove the payoff of his own philosophy, LaLanne has marked his birthdays with extraordinary feats of accomplishment. At age 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’ s Wharf, handcuffed and towing a 1000-pound boat. In the following years, he pulled off five more variations of that stunt. “Now I want to swim from Catalina to Los Angeles underwater,” he says. “It’s 26 miles. I’d changes scuba tanks every two and a half hours. Elaine says she’ll divorce me.”

Elaine, who has her own line of hand and body creams as well as several fitness books, enters the living room to see if Jack’s ready for lunch-five sliced fruits and four hard-boiled egg whites. He pulls her down for a kiss, and she then does a mini-arabesque, Fred-and-Ginger style. “Have I to-o-o-ld you lately that I love you?” he croons. Elaine laughs. “What’s that thing you say, air beneath your wings?” she asks. “She’s the strength beneath by muscle, “ says Jack, beaming. Married for 44 years, the couple have three grown children-Danny, a photographer; Jon, who runs a pool maintenance business; and Yvonne, a chiropractor.

LaLanne has made some concessions to the passage of time. “I’m not as strong as I was, naturally,” he admits. “When I was a Professional Mr. America, I weighed 173. Now I weigh 155. But I did that on purpose. Just like my buddy Arnold [Schwarzenegger]. He used to weight 240 and now he’s down to nearly 200. Why do you need all that muscle if you’re not competing? I still do everything I want to do: my chins, my dips, my workout, my swimming. And you’ll notice Elaine’s got a smile on her face. You slow down. But it’s gradual.”

There are no breaks in evidence. And his passion for nutrition remains undiminished. He’s outraged by the eating habits of American children. “Soda pop has nine and a half teaspoons of sugar in it, and you wonder why they’re psycho and getting failing grades,” LaLanne sputters. “You know why there are so many fat kids today? We’re exceeding the feed limit!” He pronounces the word fat with an emphasis that makes it sound like bacon hitting a hot griddle.

“Remember, the food you eat today is walking and talking tomorrow,” he likes to say. Or, “Would ya get your dog up in the morning and give him a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a doughnut?”
He’s open to new workout regimens, giving two thumbs-up for TaeBo and yoga. But a certain blonde with a Thighmaster gets only his unmasked disgust. Says Clint Eastwood: “Jack knew the value of exercise and nutrition before it became fashionable.” And LaLanne is still hellbent as ever on getting his message out. “You’ve got to count calories,” he says, hitting a table with each syllable for emphasis. “Otherwise, you cannot lose weight-impossible.”

Then again, “You don’t have to be a crackpot about it like me,” he adds. “Just make little changes. Instead of white bread, have whole wheat. Get more chicken, fish and turkey. Add another cup of raw vegetables and a piece of fresh fruit. Exercise 30 minutes, three or four times a week.” To date, he’s his own best advertisement. “I can’t die,” he likes to say. “It would ruin my image.”


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