Founding Father of Fitness

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2009

You’re going to have to slow down
and talk louder, son,” says the wavery
voice on the other end of the phone.
A few seconds of awkward silence pass before Jack
LaLanne, the 94-year-old proclaimed “Godfather of
Fitness,” cackles merrily, his booming voice echoing
in the receiver. “I’m kidding you, son. Let’s go!” He
lets the words pour from his mouth like a raging
river for the next hour. His energy, confidence and
contentment are infectious. An hour on the phone
with Jack LaLanne, and you’re ready to run three
marathons, back to back.

If you’re over the age of 40-something, you’re already
familiar with Jack LaLanne and his never-ending mission
to transform every American into a fit, healthy machine.
If you didn’t grow up watching his nationally syndicated
fitness show—the first of its kind—you
should know that LaLanne, at 94, is probably
stronger than you. This is, after all, the man
who towed 65 boats for more than a mile in
a lake near Tokyo. Not impressed? Keep in
mind he was handcuffed and shackled
while he swam. Oh, and the boats
were loaded with more than 3 tons of
Louisiana Pacific wood pulp. LaLanne
did it to celebrate his 65th birthday.

Jack LaLanne’s devotion to fitness and
healthy eating helped him build an entertainment
empire. In 1951, he starred in the first exercise
show on television. The Jack LaLanne Show was syndicated
a few years later, and though critics said it would fail, LaLanne
kept entertaining (and working out) America for 34 years. He’s
written books to inspire people to live clean lifestyles, promising
them longer life, more energy, even better sex. His health spas
gave birth to the modern public gyms of today. He was the first
to develop weight machines and sell exercise equipment on TV.
And his Jack LaLanne Power Juicer continues to sell thousands
of units every year. Fame and fortune are all well and
good, LaLanne says, but his mission hasn’t
changed since he opened his first gym in
1936. “I want to help as many people help
themselves as I can,” he says. “People line up [after motivational
talks] to thank me. That’s my reward; it’s not about money.”

Gaining a Healthy Attitude
But before LaLanne could save the masses, he had to save
himself. By the time he was 15, he was “a sick, weak kid addicted
to sugar.” Thirty pounds underweight, covered in acne and
boils and suffering from a volatile temper, LaLanne spent his
days munching on cakes, pies and ice cream. Concerned about
her son, his mother strongly encouraged him to attend a talk
by health expert Paul Bragg. “She was very convincing when
she wanted to be,” LaLanne says with a chuckle. Bragg told his
audience to live by the laws of nature—eat healthy, natural foods
and exercise. For LaLanne, it was the inspiration he had been
searching for. He came home, got down on his knees and prayed
to God to give him the strength to change his life.

Strength hasn’t been a problem for LaLanne since. He began
exercising, eating natural foods and transforming his body. “I
wanted to be an athlete; I wanted girls to like me,” LaLanne
admits. He studied chiropractic medicine and became obsessed
with weightlifting. By the time he opened his first health spa in
Oakland, Calif., in 1936, LaLanne had tossed aside his selfish
boyhood desires in exchange for a new mission: to help as many
people as he could.

His spa was a success. LaLanne encouraged
women and the elderly to lift weights right
alongside men. He developed predecessors to
modern-day weight machines as an alternative
to the more challenging free weights to
make it easier for novice gym rats to work out.
“Doctors said women weren’t to lift weights or
they’d get too big and muscular; older people
will drop dead of heart attacks,” LaLanne
recalls. None of it deterred him, and his gym
grew in popularity, but he still wanted more.

In 1951, a friend walked into LaLanne’s
spa with a proposition for a TV show and
asked him to audition in Hollywood. He won
the chance to host the show, which quickly
became a hit with prominent actors looking
to stay in shape. “People do whatever movie
stars do,” LaLanne says. The show became a
nationally syndicated institution for the next
three decades. More important to LaLanne, he
finally had a large enough forum to spread his
message across the country.

“Anything in life is possible,” he says.
“You control your life—it’s all up to you. The
food you eat today is walking and talking
tomorrow. You have to ask yourself, ‘What
can I do to help myself?’ ” LaLanne took his
own advice, illustrating what exercise could
do for the body by performing thousands
of pushups, chin-ups and star jumps on
his show. Anything was possible if you just
applied yourself, he told the watching public.
In 1954, at age 40, he proved his point by
captivating the entire world when he swam
the length of the Golden Gate Bridge with 140
pounds of equipment strapped to his body.
A year later, he swam from Alcatraz Island to
San Francisco while handcuffed—something
deemed humanly impossible by local law enforcement.
“Why did Jesus perform miracles?” LaLanne asks. “To
call attention. That’s why I did those things, to attract
people to my cause. When I swam from Alcatraz, it
drew international attention to the cause.”

Building Business Strength
LaLanne used his increasing fame to reach the public
anyway he could. In addition to his show, LaLanne
spread his gyms across the nation. By the time he sold
his spas to the Bally Fitness Company, he had a stable
of more than 200 properties. He continues to write
inspirational and cooking books, and he promotes his
juicer as a way for people to enjoy healthy, natural food
sources. He gives motivational speeches year-round.
He was an inaugural inductee into the National Fitness
Hall of Fame and has won countless awards, accolades
and accommodations for his more than a half-century
of service, including a star on the Hollywood Walk
of Fame, the national Dwight D. Eisenhower Fitness
Award and the State of California Governor’s Council
on Physical Fitness Lifetime Achievement Award.

Through it all, LaLanne never stopped amazing the
public with his feats of strength and endurance. Each one thrust
him back into the limelight and brought home his message of
what healthy living could accomplish in a way no TV show or
inspirational words could. In 1984, as his show was entering
its final year, LaLanne, then 70, cemented his status as a legend
when he swam 1.5 miles while towing 70 boats with 70 people
from the Queen’s Way Bridge to the Queen Mary Bridge… while
handcuffed and shackled, of course.

food you eat
today is walking and
talking tomorrow.”

His dedication to fitness is admirable, but so is his business
sense. When asked to explain how he’s been able to remain
relevant in the public consciousness for almost 60 years,
LaLanne scoffs as though it’s an obvious point. “I believe in what
I’m doing.” It sounds simple, and to LaLanne, it is. If life has
taught him anything, he says, it’s that a strong will and a belief
in yourself are all it takes to achieve whatever goal you’ve set
for yourself.

LaLanne says there are plenty of people in America just like
him—people with great ideas that could blossom into successful
businesses. It’s up to them, though, to nurture those plans.
“Everyone is a genius in his own way, but you have to bring it out
to make it happen,” he says. “You have to work at it and you have
to believe. You can’t just dream your way to success.”

Reaping the Benefits of Fitness
Even at 94, LaLanne is too busy to dream, keeping a schedule
many people 70 years his junior would envy. He rises early
and immediately hits the gym. He still lifts weights and swims,
mixing up his routines every 30 days to keep himself fresh and
interested. His workouts last about two hours, and, while he
admits that he can’t work out like he used to, he doesn’t let it
bother him, telling himself to “forget about what you used to do
and focus on today.” As for days off, LaLanne dismisses them,
saying he can’t remember a day since he was 15 that he didn’t
work out somehow.

Not that he doesn’t feel like he’s earned a little rest and relaxation.
These days, you’re likely to find LaLanne cruising the
California coast in his maroon Corvette convertible, brimming
with the energy of a man who has devoted his life to squeezing
every ounce of vitality from his body. “I’ll keep doing what I’m
doing,” LaLanne says, before offering up one of his patented
lines. “I can’t die; it would ruin my image.” When asked about the
rumors that he’ll swim to Santa Catalina Island from the coast
(some 20 miles), he laughs like a man confident in the knowledge
he could do whatever he pleased. “My wife says if I do, she’ll
divorce me. ‘Promise?’ I ask.” Apparently Jack LaLanne takes
chances with his health after all.