Obituary: Jack LaLanne, fitness dynamo who helped launch era of health-consciousness

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.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 8:43 PM

Jack LaLanne, the jumpsuit-clad fitness dynamo who starred in one of the nation's first and most popular TV exercise shows -- a program that aired from 1951 to 1985 -- and touted healthful eating with such relentless earnestness that he helped usher in a modern era of health-consciousness, died Jan. 23 at his home in Morro Bay, Calif. He was 96.

The cause was respiratory failure due to pneumonia, Mr. LaLanne's agent told the Associated Press.

Mr. LaLanne showcased his legendary stamina in outrageous stunts well into his senior years. Such feats involved towing boatloads of people in frigid, choppy sea water, often while handcuffed and shackled. To Mr. LaLanne, his reputation for superhuman strength was everything.

"I can't die," he said. "It would ruin my image."

Decades before Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons and Jim Fixx exemplified the fitness craze, Mr. LaLanne was on television lecturing about the evils of sugar and the value of fruits, vegetables and exercise.

In the early years of his career, he said he often had to tell people he was "not a crackpot" and developed an early pitch, "You like your dog? Would you get your dog up in the morning and give him a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a doughnut?"

He created in the mid-1930s what is said to be one of the nation's first health clubs - it included a juice bar and health food store. He went on to expand a chain of clubs and endorse a line of health products such as a "power juicer."

"The Jack LaLanne Show," his longrunning TV program, featured no Spandex or pumped-up pop music. It took a minimalist approach, with the enthusiastic Mr. LaLanne, often accompanied by his white German shepherd, Happy, urging his viewers to exercise with him, using such equipment as a broomstick, a chair or a towel.

An organ like those heard at old-time baseball games served as background music and aural exclamation points for his enthusiastic pep talks.

"Come on, now, girls. We're going to work on" -- he'd pat his rear -- "reducing the old back porch."

Viewers could be forgiven for thinking Mr. LaLanne a large man, as his trademark jumpsuit showed off his broad shoulders and muscled arms, tapering to a trim waist and narrow hips. But his publicity handouts listed his height as 5 feet 7 inches, plus an all-important extra three-quarter inches.

From the start, he battled misconceptions about weightlifting, then thought to harm an athlete's speed and flexibility. Men feared getting hernias or hemorrhoids; women, if they thought of exercising at all, feared overdeveloping their muscles.

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