Sunday, January 23, 2011

RIP Jack LaLanne

Sad news as fitness guru and Oakland native Jack LaLanne has died. He was 96 years young:

Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru who inspired television viewers to trim down, eat well and pump iron for decades before diet and exercise became a national obsession, died Sunday. He was 96.

LaLanne died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia Sunday afternoon at his home in Morro Bay on California's central coast, his longtime agent Rick Hersh said.

Lalanne ate healthy and exercised every day of his life up until the end, Hersh said.

"I have not only lost my husband and a great American icon, but the best friend and most loving partner anyone could ever hope for," Elaine LaLanne, Lalanne's wife of 51 years and a frequent partner in his television appearances, said in a written statement.

Just before he had heart valve surgery in 2009 at age 95, Jack Lalanne told his family that dying would wreck his image, his publicist Ariel Hankin said at the time.

LaLanne may have been a showman, and a bit of a ham, but he was very serious about health and fitness:

In 1936 in his native Oakland, LaLanne opened a health studio that included weight-training for women and athletes. Those were revolutionary notions at the time, because of the theory that weight training made an athlete slow and "muscle bound" and made a woman look masculine.

"You have to understand that it was absolutely forbidden in those days for athletes to use weights," he once said. "It just wasn't done. We had athletes who used to sneak into the studio to work out.

"It was the same with women. Back then, women weren't supposed to use weights. I guess I was a pioneer," LaLanne said.

The son of poor French immigrants, he was born in 1914 and grew up to become a sugar addict, he said.

The turning point occurred one night when he heard a lecture by pioneering nutritionist Paul Bragg, who advocated the benefits of brown rice, whole wheat and a vegetarian diet.

"He got me so enthused," LaLanne said. "After the lecture I went to his dressing room and spent an hour and a half with him. He said, 'Jack, you're a walking garbage can.'"

Soon after, LaLanne constructed a makeshift gym in his back yard. "I had all these firemen and police working out there and I kind of used them as guinea pigs," he said.

He said his own daily routine usually consisted of two hours of weightlifting and an hour in the swimming pool.

"It's a lifestyle, it's something you do the rest of your life," LaLanne said. "How long are you going to keep breathing? How long do you keep eating? You just do it."

The vagaries of fate and nature being what they are, it might be too much to say that LaLanne's long life was a result of his particular diet and fitness regimen. Just seeing pictures of him, you could tell he was just full of life and would have lived a long time regardless. Still, his quality of life appeared to have remained very high right up to the end, which is certainly something.

And, no one else wants to mention this, but it does say something that he outlived - sometimes by decades - fitness gurus who came in his wake. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Jim Fix, Dr. Atkins, and Nathan Pritikin. (I guess I could include Herman Tarnower, but I'm pretty sure having a crazy mistress was not an essential element of the Scarsdale Diet). Of course, Jane Fonda is still alive, so there's only so far you can go with this line of inquiry.

Those gurus may have found more wealth and acclaim than LaLanne, but none could match the elegant simplicity of his theories, which were easy to understand, simple to implement, and universally applicable. Something like the Pritikin diet, on the other hand, may have worked for somebody, somewhere, but was mostly the source of a lot of wishful thinking. I'm not even going to mention the contradictory and flat out wrong dietary information pumped out by the US government since the Seventies. LaLanne, I am confident, would have disdained it all.

LaLanne was a true American and Californian original, the sort of person who started trends that people would later say "started in California and spread nationally." He had a zest for life that was nearly inextinguishable. You sometimes can't help wondering if California is still capable of nurturing for Jack LaLannes.

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