The Father of Fitness

Jack LaLanne speaks candidly about his career, his beliefs, and the health and fitness industry.

Jack LaLanne is a legend.

This is obvious as we walk the floor at Club Industry '99. I'm escorting Jack to a pressroom where we can talk privately. I'm walking quickly because I want to get Jack off the show floor before he draws too much attention.

Jack is wearing wrap-around sunglasses. A light jacket covers his trademark sleeveless unitard. He is moving fast. I figure he's inconspicuous, just another face in the crowd.

I'm wrong.

"You're the man, Jack!" a guy yells as we pass him. Jack smiles. The guy is young. He probably never saw Jack's exercise show.

Other men and women, most of them in their 20s, also recognize Jack. They crowd around as we hurry through the aisles. They ask to have their photos taken with Jack. They request autographs. Jack obliges happily. He chats. At 85, he gives bone-crushing handshakes. He pats men on the shoulder. He invites people to feel his "scrawny arm," then flexes a rock-hard bicep that would put most 18-year-olds to shame.

I look at my watch and wonder if I'm ever going to get an interview.

I'm anxious but not surprised. These admirers may have been born after The Jack LaLanne Show left the airwaves, but they are still aware of Jack's contributions to our industry.

He is a pioneer, a personal trainer who promoted exercise when "experts" condemned working out as dangerous.

He is a trailblazer, a lecturer who preached about proper eating habits - a vegan before vegan was chic.

He is an entrepreneur, a businessman who brought health and fitness to millions through his television show, gyms and personal appearances.

He is, in short, a legend.

Eventually, we make it into the press-room and take a seat. I'm hoping to get 10 or 15 minutes of Jack's time. I set my sights short. Jack talks for nearly 45 minutes. He is animated, perpetual motion, a generator of seemingly endless energy. He slams his hand down on the table for emphasis. He grabs my right arm and pulls me in close when he makes an important point.

We talk about exercise. He still does the same daily two-hour workout he's done for most of his life. He spends one hour lifting weights, another hour in the water. His love of aquatic exercise has not abated over the years. "I'm so high on water work for everybody," he remarks. "I've taken top athletes like Schwartzenegger and Ferrigno into the water and worked them out for five minutes, and they are so sore, the next day they can hardly move."

He discusses his diet. He eats 3 or 4 ounces of fish every day. He also gets protein from egg whites. He rounds out his meals with at least 10 raw vegetables and five pieces of fresh fruit. The only grains he eats are 100 percent whole grains, all natural. He calls cream, milk and butter "killers." He won't consume anything that comes from a cow.

"I'm not a suckling calf," he says. "I don't have three stomachs. You know 70 percent of the people on the planet are allergic to milk? Name me one creature that drinks milk after they are weaned."

Jack supplements his daily meals with 40 to 50 vitamins, minerals and herbs. He takes everything from A to Z, all natural. He's done this for years. Even with a diet as healthy as his, he wants to make certain his body absorbs everything it requires to remain strong.

We chat about the early days, when he owned and operated fitness facilities. He talks about his innovations. He claims that he invented selectorized equipment, pulley machines, the leg extension and more.

"You know the Smith machine?" he comments. "That was 1 million percent mine. I invented that. There were old guys in my gym, and they couldn't keep their balance, so I had this thing made for them."

Then why isn't the Smith machine called the LaLanne machine?

"I never had anything patented," Jack replies with a shrug.

That may seem strange, but for Jack, inventing new equipment was a way to give his customers variety, not a way to make money. It's an attitude he still carries today. He loves seeing all of the modern hightech equipment out on the show floor. It reminds him of his own efforts to keep people excited about exercise.

"In my gym, you couldn't move two feet," Jack remembers. "We had stuff coming out of the ceiling and out of the floors. And every couple of months, I'd invent a new piece of equipment for my students. They said, 'What's he going to get for us this time?' You see, I kept their enthusiasm up."

Jack's own enthusiasm for exercise came at an early age. He describes the young Jack LaLanne as a "sick, weak kid who was 30, 40 pounds underweight." That all changed when he attended a health lecture. He left the lecture with new knowledge and a new outlook. He became a vegetarian. He gave up sugars. He ate natural foods. He started to exercise. The sickly child became a star athlete.

At the age of 15, Jack became interested in body building. He wanted to know everything about how the body functioned. Since bookstores weren't exactly lining their shelves with information on exercise, he picked up a copy of "Gray's Anatomy," the classic scientific text that many still consider to be the ultimate source on the workings of the human body. The adolescent Jack read the book constantly, to the point where it began to interfere with his high school studies. "I'd be in algebra class, and everybody's studying, and I'm reading this damn thing," he says, laughing. After graduation, Jack went to chiropractic college to further his knowledge of kinesiology.

Since exercise and nutrition had saved his life, Jack wanted to save others. He set out to do just that in 1936 when he opened "the first modern health club in the United States," as he calls it. He figured his reputation as a successful football player, baseball player, wrestler, swimmer and body builder would attract clients.

It didn't.

The problem was bad publicity. Coaches criticized him, saying that athletes who lifted weights would become so muscle-bound, they would be unable to raise their arms. Newspapers called him a charlatan and a crackpot. Even physicians attacked him, claiming that the Jack LaLanne regimen caused everything from impotence to hemorrhoids.

"I'd be six foot six today if they hadn't beat me down," Jack says.

The Power of Truth
Still, Jack knew he was right. He was living proof of the power of a healthy lifestyle, and he wasn't going to quit. "When you believe, they can't stop you," Jack exclaims. "Nobody can. Truth is truth."

Jack decided that if people wouldn't come to him, he would go to them. He put on a tight T-shirt to accentuate his chiseled physique and went to high schools at lunchtime. He endured the insults of the students. They called him muscle-bound and challenged him to comb his hair or touch his toes. Knowing he was a vegetarian, they offered him hamburgers. He ignored them because he was there for a purpose.

He picked out the heaviest kid and the skinniest kid he could find. He got their home addresses. He visited them at night and wrote out gym contracts for the families. He guaranteed to take 15 to 20 pounds off the overweight kids in 30 days or double their money back. The deal was pretty much the same for the thin kids, only he guaranteed to put 15 to 20 pounds of solid muscle on them.

Jack got those kids into his gym - and he got results. One teenager lost 111 pounds in seven months. Skinny kids packed on muscle. People noticed. They realized Jack knew what he was doing. They wanted in. More kids came to the gym. Then their parents.

Exercise for Everyone
Men and women, young and old, amateurs and professional athletes - Jack trained them all. He claims to be the first to have 80-year-old men work out with weights. That's why he laments the fact that clubs today seem to concentrate solely on young people. He says we need to get exercise into the nursing homes. We need to get seniors out of bed and out of wheelchairs. He believes that exercise can add many pleasant years to the lives of older adults.

"What we know about exercise, what we know about nutrition, living to 100 is nothing," Jack emphasizes. "Man should live to be 120. Dogs mature at 2. They live six times their age of maturity. Most dogs live 10, 12, 15 years old. We as humans mature at 25. What's six times 25? One hundred and fifty."

One hundred and fifty. Looking at Jack, you believe that age is obtainable. He exudes vigor, and I can only imagine the type of enthusiasm he fostered in his students.

When people joined Jack's gym, they weren't just paying to use his equipment. They got personal service. He told students what to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Young kids got fashion tips. Older students got pep talks. Every 30 days, Jack would give all the students a fresh program. And he never let them forget that he cared more about their health than a membership fee.

"If you missed two workouts at my gym, I was on the phone to you," Jack says. " 'Damn, I don't want your money, I want you!' "

Jack says clubs don't give that type of instruction nowadays - at least not for free. That's part of the reason why he decided to get out of the club business. He didn't like the way the industry was evolving. He saw club operators who were more concerned with profit than helping people.

"To get instruction today, you have to get a personal trainer," he complains. "How many people have that $100 or $200 an hour, whatever it costs?"

Jack urges clubs to take an interest in their members. The average person doesn't know how to exercise, he points out. He claims that 95 percent of the people in clubs are doing their exercises incorrectly because they never received instruction. Improper exercise won't yield results, and lack of results often causes members to quit out of frustration.

"You got to help these people," Jack says. "Why do you think there is such a high turnover in these clubs?"

In Jack's opinion, clubs can revitalize themselves if they employ the business model he used as a gym owner. "If gyms devoted their time to instructing students in nutrition and exercise, changed their program every three to four weeks, and didn't charge them an exorbitant price, they'd have so much business, they couldn't handle it," he says. "It's going to revert back to that, you mark my words."

Proper instruction will not only get people into clubs, it will also help clear up the confusion surrounding heath and fitness. As Jack sees it, people are baffled by the conflicting information on nutrition and exercise. They hear about the miracles of fad diets. They watch infomercials for products that promise complete workouts in record time. It makes Jack angry.

"You've got 640 muscles in your body, and they all need their share of work," he says. "I work out two hours every day, right? I'm wasting a lot of time if I could take a Butt Master and do it in two minutes or something. It's ridiculous."

The Dangers of Advertising
Infomercials aren't the only the problem. He believes that advertising in general has helped turn the United States into the "most overfed, undernourished nation in the world." He watches fast-food commercials and knows why people are getting obese and dying young from heart attacks. Kids are particularly susceptible to marketing, he believes. They see their heroes promoting fast food, alcohol and soft drinks. They emulate.

"You see Michael Jordan out there with that hot dog," Jack says. "Well what do you expect kids are going to eat? Hamburgers and hot dogs and all this crud."

This statement leads Jack to a closing thought. If advertising is ruining people's health, then it's up to our industry to market our message as a counterpoint. "That's what we got to do in fitness: We've got to promote our profession to the kids in school," he notes. "It should start in kindergarten. These kids should be taught about eating whole-wheat bread and fruits and vegetables and vitamins, the whole bit. It's the only way we're ever going to get it over."

The interview finished, Jack gives me one of his bone-crushing handshakes. He is still wearing the sunglasses. I suggest that he get a better disguise. He remarks that he isn't wearing the shades to be incognito.

"My son gave them to me," he says. "He said they would make me look cool."

As I watch him walk away, I can't help but think that Jack LaLanne is cool. And it's got nothing to do with the sunglasses.

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