It seems like just yesterday we observed fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne’s 96th birthday. On Sunday, in much sadder news, the man known to many as the first “fitness guru” has passed away. LaLanne died of respiratory failure from pneumonia after living what I’d call a long, full life.
He’s towed boats and barges while handcuffed and shackled, taken on all comers in chin-up and push-up competitions (Arnold Schwarzenegger said “no one could match him”) and sold countless books, records, gym memberships, cable-pulley exercise devices and Juice Tigers. Anyone who calls themselves a fitness trainer owes Jack LaLanne a debt of gratitude for giving them a career path.
What you may not know is that he wasn’t always the healthiest, fittest man on the planet.
From Psychotic and Suicidal to Fit and Caring
As a boy and a teen, Jack LaLanne was spoiled. Candy, cakes and pies became a reward for good behavior, and as most of us do, he craved more and more. The sugar highs and lows fueled what he called “demented” behavior. Physically he was weak and unattractive, skinny and pockmarked. He entertained thoughts of suicide. “I was psychotic,” he said. “I was malnourished. I was always getting sick. I got kicked out of school. I wanted to die.”
Dragged to a seminar by nutritionist Paul Bragg, LaLanne reached a turning point when he was told the fix for his problems was simple: ditch the sugar and eat wholesome, nutritious foods. The young LaLanne took Bragg’s advice to heart, and immersed himself in health. He quit sugary foods cold-turkey, becoming a “fish-etarian.” Exercising for the first time in his life, he became…well, Jack LaLanne.
Just being healthy and strong wasn’t enough, though: he decided it would be his life’s work to be an inspiration to others. There was no such thing as a CFT or CPT, so he got a Doctor of Chiropractic degree. He opened his first gym in 1936 and had to design equipment himself. He was given a TV show in 1952, and it ran until 1986. Throughout the years, he performed feats of strength which usually involved swimming in or near San Francisco Bay, often in handcuffs and shackles while towing heavy things.
Why? Because he wanted to demonstrate how the fitness lifestyle worked for him. Because he thought it might inspire someone to take the same path. “I care more than — you cannot believe how much I care! I want to help somebody!”
Behind it all, Jack LaLanne knew he had an addictive personality: if he wasn’t hooked on fitness, he’d be hooked on sugar, junk food, or worse. He knew that the only way he could maintain a healthy lifestyle was to do it 100%. He exercised every day into his 90s, and never ate a bite of white flour or sugar since he was that sickly, psychotic 15-year-old. “With my personality, I could be a runaway, out with a different woman every night, drunk every night, eating and doing things that…well, you know, you’ve got it in you, we’ve all got it in us. That’s why you’ve got to take control!”
What does this mean to you? Right now, you know how easy it is for you to live better—not just physically, but mentally as well. If you find you can’t walk a path of moderation, you might have to channel your addictive behavior toward positive habits. Make fitness or socialization or resiliency your obsession. Immerse yourself in it. Live it. With the ability to connect with others via the Internet, it’s easier to do now than it was in LaLanne’s day, when he was called a crackpot for his habits.
Jack LaLanne not only got the last laugh, he laughed it for longer than the vast majority of his contemporaries. You may or may not live to be 96, but you can live like you mean it.
Here’s the man himself, back in his prime, with more on this topic: