A Fitness Icon Keeps His Juices Flowing

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I should have known that Jack LaLanne was pulling a fast one, but my heart sank when I first saw the fitness guru slumped before the television in his hotel suite.

How well I remembered him for his bulging biceps and trademark tight black T-shirt and pants. There he would be on afternoon television, urging viewers to exercise with him or hawking his Jack LaLanne juicer.

"If man made it, don't eat it," he used to say, decades ahead of the popular movement to eat more whole foods.

Back then, LaLanne had slicked black hair. He was energetic, vital and, well, let's say it, sexy, even to a pre-pubescent kid like me.

In town recently to pick up a lifetime achievement award from the President's Council for Physical Fitness and Sports, LaLanne still looked trim, if a little grayer, as he sat in his hotel. But he was staring vacantly at the nightly news and didn't stir as I brushed past his chair. His cheery wife, Elaine -- "he calls me LaLa," she said -- welcomed me.

"Jack!" she said loudly and started introducing us when LaLanne suddenly leapt up and lunged halfway across the room to give me a bear hug.

"Fooled you, you sexy blond bombshell!" he teased, a 92-year-old Puck.

Of course, I should have known. He was old, but he was faking the senility.

Then he planted a kiss on my cheek and, nodding toward Elaine, said, "Leave a little air between us, so that she doesn't get jealous."

We all laughed, especially his wife of more than half a century. "He does this at all our speeches," she explained. "He shuffles out on stage and then he surprises people."

Decades ahead of today's obesity epidemic -- and while Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda were still in diapers -- LaLanne took his exercise crusade to the airwaves, demonstrating to Americans just becoming enamored with television how they could stay active while they viewed their favorite programs.

Would that a few more had paid attention.

LaLanne used to regale his audience with his one-armed push-ups done on fingertips. He showed them how to turn their recliners into mini-gyms by pumping imaginary bicycles and doing other chair exercises. In the 1930s, he even began advocating weight training. To go beyond the usual barbells -- and to keep his gym clients from getting bored -- he worked with a blacksmith to develop leg-extension equipment and one of the first adjustable weight machines that are standard equipment in today's gyms.

A chiropractor by training, LaLanne learned about vegetarianism from his mother, a strict Seventh-day Adventist. So while the country dined on meat and potatoes, LaLanne crusaded for eating raw fruit and vegetables and avoiding processed fare.

"Did you ever read the label on a can of soup?" he asks, still exasperated. "You can't pronounce the ingredients. Artificial coloring, additives. Added color. Salt. Sugar."

To baby boomers and their parents, the name Jack LaLanne is synonymous with health, vitality and fitness. But this famous muscle man, who now serves on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Council on Physical Fitness, says he started life "as a weak, sick, miserable kid," addicted to sugar. He dropped out of a San Francisco Bay area high school and was a self-described troublemaker who wandered into a health lecture one day and changed his life.

The speaker advocated eating healthful food -- a tenet that resonated with LaLanne. "I was this young 15-year-old," LaLanne recalls. "What the hell! . . . I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted the girls to like me. I wanted to go through the day without headaches."

That night, he prayed for guidance to help him kick the candy, meat and other foods that he thought were killing him. The next day, he began life as a vegetarian -- a practice that he mostly continues today -- and joined the Berkeley YMCA. "I started working out with weights, and it changed my life," he says. "If something changes your life, you will be enthusiastic about it."

So enthusiastic, that LaLanne is considered one of the first modern health evangelists. "Billy Graham is for the hereafter," LaLanne likes to say. "I'm for the here and now."

He still lifts weights -- a practice that numerous studies show preserves the muscle mass usually lost with aging. (You can see LaLanne in action in a short video at http://www.washingtonpost.com/health.)

"I've said it a million times," he notes. "Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you've got a kingdom."

It's that combination of activity and nutrition that science shows can control blood pressure, improve heart health, tone muscles, elevate mood, maintain mental functioning, slow aging and stave off premature death.

To celebrate his 65th birthday, he swam pulling 65 boats filled with 6,500 pounds of wood pulp in Lake Ashi, near Tokyo. For his 70th birthday, he towed 70 boats with 70 people 1.5 miles against the current in the Long Beach, Calif. harbor. For his 95th birthday, he'd like to swim from the coast of California to Santa Catalina Island, more than 20 miles offshore. But Elaine says, somewhat in jest, that she'll divorce him if he tries.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, who are in assisted-living or nursing homes, LaLanne still works and lives independently in a home on the central coast of California. He's still such an avid swimmer in his 10th decade that he recently signed on to promote a small resistance swimming pool that is the aquatic equivalent of a home treadmill. In his spare time, he drives his 2005 Corvette around town. "Would I put water in the gas tank?" he asks, not missing an opportunity to proselytize. "Well, what about your body? That's why a lot of people go through life pooping out and die in middle age. You have got to put the right fuel in this machine."

Portion control is another message that he delivered long before fast-food restaurants began super-sizing meals. "People are exceeding the feed limit," LaLanne likes to say. "It's that simple. The food you eat today is walking and talking tomorrow."

LaLanne may have slowed a little from his heyday, but he hasn't given up practicing what he preaches. He rises at 6 or 7 a.m. and heads to one of two gyms at his home for a two-hour workout. (Elaine takes a more laid-back approach. "He rolls out of bed and I roll over," she quips, preferring to work out in the pool later in the day.)

He eats two meals a day, but notes that this regimen isn't for everyone. "You've got to figure out what works for your schedule," he says. "You know who is the most important person on this earth? It's me. And the most important person on this earth is you."

His breakfast is at 11 a.m. He eats four to five pieces of fruit and gets protein from cooked egg whites. "Once in a while I eat a turkey sandwich on whole wheat with avocado and tomato," he says.

He doesn't snack between meals and uses soy milk instead of dairy products, but he isn't a Spartan: He and Elaine eat out every night.

"Every restaurant near us now has a Jack LaLanne salad," he says. "It's at least 10 raw vegetables chopped, and very little lettuce." He brings his own sesame oil salad dressing and sometimes adds more hard-boiled egg whites for additional protein. He also eats fish, especially salmon, which is rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

And, of course, there's a little wine, a tribute to his Franco-American heritage. "Ever see a Frenchman who doesn't drink?" he asks. He sips a glass that's a mix of white zinfandel and red wine -- because, as he says, "one's too sweet and one's too sour."

Moderation remains his mantra. His healthy habits -- and a few good genes -- account for his longevity. His mother lived to be 94, though his father died at 50. What he stumbled upon as a teenager and built as an adult have not only helped him to age well but have also stood the test of time -- and science.

He is unsentimental about the past. "The good old days," LaLanne says. "Poop. The good old days are now, now, now. What I think about is now. This is the moment I have waited for. This is it. These are the good old days."

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