Natural Foods Merchandiser
Remembering Jack LaLanne

Remembering Jack LaLanne

In honor of Jack LaLanne, who died yesterday at age 96, we look back at a healthy life well lived through a 2008 Natural Foods Merchandiser tribute to the fitness and nutrition guru.

This day starts the same way the 27,415 days that preceded it have. The sun is not up. Under the covers it is warm; the house is dark and cold. Never mind. It is 5 a.m., a private witching hour. It is time for Jack LaLanne to, yet again, pull his 87-year-old body out of bed and begin his ritual of sacrifice, pain, endurance and, eventually, personal redemption.

Jack will kiss Elaine, his wife of 50 some-odd years, on the cheek or shoulder and rise. "I roll out and she rolls over," Jack says with no melancholy. He knows this is a path he goes alone.

For the next hour, Jack will heft weights in his well-equipped and well-worn home gym. He will expend himself to the edge of exhaustion. As a reward for having finished his routine, he treats himself to a second hour of exercise, this time in an outdoor pool still quite chilly from the cool night in Morro Bay on the central California coast. His only company his dogs, ever watchful for night creatures braving the approaching dawn. And here, tethered to the wall of the pool, Jack will swim—usually the butterfly—for another full hour.

Many would say that Jack LaLanne is rigid, unyielding and uncompromising; that he's absolute, single-minded and obsessive-compulsive about vigorous exercise and natural nutrition. If so, they would severely understate Jack's dedication.

Jack, on the other hand, would simply say that he is upholding his end of the bargain.

Seventy-two years ago Jack made a deal with nature. Perhaps the deal included God. Of that, Jack is unsure. What he does know is that he owes all he has done, all he continues to do and all he is yet do, to his ritualistic discipline and dogma.

It is a price he chose to pay long ago. And he is happy to keep paying it.

Jennie LaLanne did not want to see her son die. That had happened to her once already. Her youngest of three sons died of pneumonia. Of course, infant mortality was not all that unusual in Depression-era America. Now, a second son had barely escaped pneumonia. A 10-day fight with fever continuously spiking higher than 104 degrees had left her son—a teen of weak constitution even before the illness—entirely exhausted, pale and frail. He suffered frequent blinding headaches. This on the heels of having been housebound for the past six months because of various illnesses, some real and others, perhaps, imaginary.

Even more alarming was her son's depression. He thought often of suicide. Twice, already, he had attacked his older brother, once with a knife and another time with an axe.

Jack was not well.

Jennie, a devout Christian, had years before become a Seventh Day Adventist because the Catholic Church did not provide what she needed. For Jennie, Catholicism offered not enough structure, not enough demands, not enough sacrifice. She was a dominant force in the household. She was a tough woman to argue with.

So, despite his objections, whining, excuse-making and downright begging, Jennie LaLanne quite literally dragged her 15-year-old son Jack out of his bed in their modest Berkeley, Calif., home. She took Jack to hear a lecture by a nutritionist she had read about in the newspaper, scheduled that day to talk to the Oakland City Women's Club. Jack was horrified.

Jack's attempts to forestall going ultimately succeeded in only delay. This was why he and his mother arrived late to the lecture. For Jack, a day that had begun with humiliation was about to get much worse.

By the time they arrived in Oakland, the room was full. All seats were taken. The seats occupied all available floor space. There wasn't even space to stand. Looking around, Jack felt some relief.

"There weren't any seats left," Jack recalls having thought at that moment. "We'd just have to go home." Jack sensed that his mother, too, was toying with the idea of leaving. He was so close to escape.

Then nature, in the voice of health food pioneer Paul C. Bragg, came calling.

"Do not leave!" Bragg's voice boomed from the stage just as Jack was attempting to slip out the door. "We will not turn anyone away."

Jack was too stunned to move. Bragg commanded that chairs be found, but where to place them? The only space left was up on the stage, right in front of Bragg. Chairs were handed up, and mom and son were ushered up onto the stage.

"There I was, skinny, pimply, boils, sick and on a chair on the stage with my mother in front of a whole room filled with people," Jack recalls. "I just knew everyone in the room was looking at me. I was humiliated."

Bragg's topic was how to take personal responsibility for health and happiness; Jack was a crystal clear example of what not to be. It was, he now says, the absolute lowest point of his life.

"I thought I would die," Jack says.

Lights dimmed a bit and Bragg faced his audience. He looked at all of the faces. He looked fully into Jack's.

"It matters not what your present age is or what your physical condition is," Bragg said in a low, even, soft voice. "If you obey nature's laws, you can be born again."

For Jack, the nutritionist was akin to the Wizard of Oz.

"I will never, ever, ever forget what he said," Jack recalls. It is one of the few times Jack sounds truly reverent. "I desperately wanted to be born again."

And thus, Jack LaLanne, the man who would become the single most recognized worldwide icon for the personal benefits of proper diet and exercise, was reborn.

Jack's transformation lay first and foremost in nutrition. After becoming a strict natural foods vegetarian, Jack realized he would not be completely healthy unless he was also fit. He joined the Berkeley YMCA. Swimming and wrestling were about the only organized activities the Y offered in those days, so Jack became very good at both. Some days he noticed two muscular men who would work out with weights but always put them in a box to which only they had the key. This intrigued Jack.

"I asked them if I could try, too, and they laughed at me," Jack recalls. "So, I said, 'If I can beat you both in wrestling, can I use the weights?' So, I beat them and they had to let me use the weights."

Tale Of The Tape
Height: 5'6"
Weight: 150 lbs.
Waist: 31"
Neck: 17"
Chest: 46"
Thigh: 22"
Biceps: 15"
Hips: 35"

Jack would "borrow" the weights one by one overnight and take them to a foundry where he would have replicas made. That led to building a gym in his backyard. Soon, others learned of his backyard gym, including members of the San Francisco police and fire departments. Jack began training police and firefighters so they could pass their physical exams. From this came a chain of Jack LaLanne Spas across America. To literally millions of people around the world, Jack delivered his message of healthful living. The former competitive bodybuilder did so by being a living example of what nutrition and exercise could achieve, regardless of age, gender, income, societal status or genetic disposition. For the 34 years Jack was on television, he would lure, prod, encourage and exhort viewers to take responsibility for their health. He would tell them how to do it. He would show them how to do it. And, he'd be back tomorrow to see that they did.

In 1959, "The Jack LaLanne Show" became the first nationally syndicated television show on exercise and nutrition. He became a household name, as did his dogs, Happy, Smiley and Walter.

"At that time, everything in the morning was kids shows," Jack says. "I thought that housewives and adults at home during the day would be interested in something for them. But, I had to appeal to kids, too. So, I would start by asking kids to come close to the TV and would get them warmed up and ask them to go get their brothers and sisters and moms and dads if they were home and do exercises together. I'd talk to them about what to eat and what not to eat. That's why I did jokes and tricks and had dogs on [the show]. Of course, if the dog tricks worked I would take credit. If not, I could blame the dog."

In recognition of Jack's achievements, he will be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on his 88th birthday in September.

He encouraged women to join men in gyms and work with weights. He did the same for children, older people and those with physical challenges. He stressed the value of weight training for athletes at a time when few did. He preached about eating natural foods.

When television and video gave way to a new set of enthusiasts—Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda, Denise Austin and others—Jack took to the lecture circuit. He began a series of well-publicized events to remind people that they could maintain fitness and health while growing older.

"I wanted to show I wasn't just a muscle man. I was an athlete," Jack says. "Later, I did it to show that getting older doesn't mean you can't be strong and healthy."

Jack has been threatening for several years to celebrate his 90th birthday by swimming underwater from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf while handcuffed, a feat he performed while towing a boat at age 60. Elaine forbids it, saying divorce is not a threat but a promise.

"For my 90th birthday, I'll probably just tow Elaine across the bathtub," he laughs, helping relieve Elaine of her scowl.

While Jack became well-known for his many—sometimes even bizarre—feats of strength and endurance that some say bordered on publicity mongering, his message always has been one of balance between exercise and nutrition. Asked whether his message about nutrition was sometimes lost in the attention-gathering strength and stamina-related stunts he would often undertake, Jack says no. Elaine, however, is not so sure.

"More than half the time Jack would talk about it, he would talk about nutrition," says Elaine. "But what people would tend to remember is the exercise. But eating the right foods was always key."

"Look," Jack says, indulging one of his pithy philosophies. "Exercise is king and diet is queen. It takes both to have a kingdom."

In between the TV shows and fitness feats, Jack and Elaine built a business. They offered the first nutrition bars, popularized juicers, espoused the benefits of natural ingredients, vitamins and supplements, and invented device after device to help people get and stay fit. Jack sought no patents on what he built. Helping people was his motivation, not cornering the market on gadgets. Jack built gyms and was the first to insist on incorporating health food bars into the gyms.

His breadth of experience includes roles as personal trainer; nutrition consultant; author; and manufacturer, supplier and retailer of whole grain breads, cereals, bars, shakes, vitamins, supplements and all kinds of workout equipment.

The LaLannes no longer make or sell foods, but Jack says he has great empathy for the challenging but noble goal of educating consumers about what they should eat. With the exception of trying to understand and comply with ever-changing and difficult labeling requirements, he says his tenure as a manufacturer and supplier was an enjoyable one. His experience is one reason he is so excited about the future of the natural products industry.

"I am 1,000 percent behind natural products," he says. "And I think the industry is still in its infancy. It's really just begun."

He offers some specific advice for natural products retailers.

"What we really need to do is get kids into natural products in kindergarten," he says, stressing that retailers and manufacturers need to combine forces and establish relationships with school officials and parents to ensure students are offered healthy foods and snacks in lieu of unhealthy alternatives.

Jack's schedule challenges but never prevents him from adhering to his diet and workout protocol. During the month of March, for example, Jack and Elaine will be home just one day. Among his engagements, Jack will be the closing keynote speaker at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., on March 10 at 10 a.m.

The reason he goes to such extremes is that Jack believes he must "walk the walk, not just talk the talk." His diet is entirely regimented and does not vary . He scoffs at any suggestion that he consider occasionally cheating.

"I know that my diet and exercise saved my life," he fires back. "Would you stop doing something you know for sure saved your life? Not me."

Much of what Jack said and did was thought by many, at the time, to be nonsense and, worse, destructive.

"Doctors," he says with a huff. "They said that athletes shouldn't be muscle-bound. It would interfere with their sports. Women shouldn't lift weights; they would wind up looking like men. They said kids had no place in a gym. Older people just need to walk. Now, the thinking is different. But then ..." he trails off.

The national recognition Jack has garnered is truly impressive. Perhaps the greatest formal, public recognition of his accomplishments is his designation from The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. The group selects an individual who epitomizes Alger: a person who has risen from disadvantaged beginnings to significant achievement. The criteria fit Jack, well, like the body-hugging jumpsuits for which he is so famous.

Born Francois Henri LaLanne on Sept. 26, 1914, to French immigrants John and Jennie, Jack was the second of three sons. Mother and father came to America on the same boat from small towns in France barely 20 miles from each other. Both were from sheep-raising families. Jennie and her parents settled around Bakersfield, Calif., while John had ties to Northern California. Job prospects brought Jennie to the Bay Area where she met John, who was supplementing his income by giving ballroom dance lessons at night. Jennie, as it turned out, was an impressionable and impression-making pupil.

"Mother was initially interested in another person, but that made my father jealous," Jack says. "So, Dad put some Limburger cheese in the other guy's pocket—they wore tuxes in those days, you know—to kill his chances with my mother."

The sufficiently repelled Jennie turned her attentions to John, and they were together thereafter until John's death at age 50, an age Jack says was entirely too young.

"[Father] didn't eat right. He'd say that exercise stuff and diet stuff was for young people. He didn't listen. I wish he had because he would have gotten to see some of the things I was able to do for people," Jack says wistfully. "He didn't listen."

From his mother Jack learned, not surprisingly, the values of helping others, self-sacrifice and discipline. From his father Jack learned the values of having fun, a sense of humor, sharp wit, dance and song. The latter would prove essential to wooing his future wife, in spite, as it turned out, of his muscles.

The jealousy that motivated his father to sabotage his rival was not lost on Jack when trying to get Elaine's attention. Jack met Elaine, appropriately enough, on a television set. Elaine was co-host and the primary booking person—"They just called us girl Fridays," Elaine says—for a San Francisco-based television talk show and variety program. A friend called Elaine and told her she knew of a man who could do pushups for the entire show. The show was 90 minutes long.

That's a lot of pushups.

Sure enough, Jack showed up and proceeded to do pushups the entire 90 minutes. Guests and acts would come and go but there was Jack, in the background, doing pushups the entire time. While this impressed many, it didn't capture Elaine's heart, even though Jack quickly and repeatedly asked her out on a date.

"I mean, he was a muscle guy," Elaine says, laughing, "The only thing I knew about muscle guys was how they were portrayed in movies and such. You know, not all that smart or rounded out."

Jack decided, later, to ask out one of Elaine's co-workers and, to Elaine's surprise, this made her feel a little jealous. After that, she agreed to a date. Jack, Elaine and two other couples were on their way to dinner when they stopped in a small piano bar. Jack likes to recall it was a lesbian bar and Elaine shoots dagger glances at Jack as if to say, "What does that matter?" Regardless, Jack was quite the crooner and wound up singing in the bar. Elaine's perception of Jack utterly and forever changed. They've been partners—in every sense of the word—since.

To understand Jack LaLanne is to appreciate a really good love story.

"She is my lover, my partner, my best friend," Jack says, smiling at Elaine. "And, she's stronger than a bull and half as smart," he snorts.

It's an ironic quip because, while Jack's no dummy, Elaine appears to be the brains of the outfit.

"Everything I've achieved in life I owe to [Elaine]," Jack is quick to point out. "I couldn't have done anything without her."

What Elaine knows better than anyone else, though, is that Jack is not alone each of the cold, dark mornings he rises to begin his workout and diet regimen. He goes to prove to himself—and to us—each day that it can and should be done.

In that sense, we are always with him.

Darrell Denny is executive VP/president, Penton Lifestyle Media.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 52, 54, 56, 58, 60

The Jack LaLanne Menu

Breakfast: Blended soy milk and protein powder shake, multi-grain organic cereal with soy milk, a barrage of vitamins and supplements

Lunch: Four boiled eggs with yolks removed, five servings of fresh fruit, occasionally raw vegetables

Dinner (almost always at a restaurant): Organic brown rice, five to eight servings of raw vegetables and, often, four to six ounces of steamed or broiled fish

Drinks: Frequent water during the day, one to three glasses of organic wine in the evening

Snacks: none, ever

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 54

Jack's Strength Demonstrations

1954 (age 40): Swims the length of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge underwater with 140 pounds of equipment (including two air tanks)—an undisputed world record.

Age 41: Swims, handcuffed, from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, Calif.

Age 42: Sets a record by doing 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes on the "You Asked For It" television show with Art Baker.

Age 43: Swims the treacherous Golden Gate Channel, towing a 2,500-pound cabin cruiser. This involved fighting cold, swift ocean currents that made the one-mile swim a 6.5-mile test of strength and endurance.

Age 44: Maneuvers a paddleboard 30 miles—9.5 hours non-stop—from the Farallon Islands to the San Francisco shore.

Age 45: Completes 1,000 pushups and 1,000 chin-ups in 1 hour, 22 minutes.

Age 60: Swims from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf, handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

Age 61: Swims the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, underwater, handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000 pound boat.

Age 62: Commemorating the "Spirit of '76," swims one mile in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed, shackled and towing 13 boats (representing the 13 original colonies) containing 76 people.

Age 65: Tows 65 boats filled with 6,500 pounds of Louisiana Pacific wood pulp while handcuffed and shackled in Lake Ashinoko, near Tokyo.

Age 67: Tows 10 boats and 77 passengers in North Miami, Fla., for more than a mile in less than one hour.

Age 70: Handcuffed, shackled and fighting strong winds and currents, tows 70 boats with 70 people from the Queen's Way Bridge in the Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary, 1.5 miles.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 56

You Can Thank Jack

Jack LaLanne, the jumping jack's namesake, is credited with being the first to do the following:

Open a modern health spa.

Have a nationally syndicated television show on exercise and nutrition.

Develop the:

  • leg-extension machine
  • weight-selector machine
  • cable/pulley machines
  • calf machines
  • wrist-roll machines

Have athletes work out with weights.

Have women work out with weights.

Encourage the elderly to work out with weights.

Have a combination health foods bar and gym.

Develop a weight-loss instant-breakfast meal-replacement drink.

Open a coed health club.

Combine weight training with nutrition.

Make an edible, nutritious snack bar.

Sell vitamins and exercise equipment on television.

Teach scientific body building by changing the exercise program every two to three weeks.

Encourage the physically challenged to exercise and work around their disabilities.

Perform feats of strength and endurance to emphasize the benefits of exercise and good nutrition.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 58

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