Jack LaLanne dies; fitness guru helped shepherd in an era of health-consciousness

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, 92, lifts weights and tells you how to fuel your body to health. Focus on you, exercise daily and feed your body the right foods in the right amounts. Video by Sally Squires/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 6:26 AM

Jack LaLanne, the jumpsuit-clad fitness dynamo who starred in one of the nation's first and most popular TV exercise shows and touted healthful eating with such relentless earnestness that he helped usher in a modern era of health-consciousness, died Sunday at age 96.

Mr. LaLanne died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia, his longtime agent, Rick Hersh, 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 the nation's first health club, which included a juice bar and health food store, and went on to expand a chain of clubs and endorse a line of health products such as a "power juicer."

"The Jack LaLanne Show," which aired from 1951 to 1985, 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.

Viewers could be forgiven for thinking him 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.

"What's really fascinating is how far ahead of his time he really was," John Eliot, an expert in the psychology of fitness and health, told USA Today in 2004. "At the time, coaches told [athletes] not to do weightlifting stuff because it was bad for them. It wasn't until the late '70s, when the Dallas Cowboys hired the first strength coach, that people paid real attention."

Far from being discouraged, Mr. LaLanne remained an indefatigable showman and pitchman.

In 1981, he gave a dramatic account of his cure from sugar addiction to Sports Illustrated , which reported: "He does an impressionable young Jack, sugar-bombed, undergoing a miraculous transformation. He clasps his hands prayerfully under his chin and looks up at the living room ceiling. They don't do this any better at Lourdes."

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