Jack Lalanne: A Legacy of Health

February 27, 2016

jack lalanne

You probably never thought about where jumping jacks got their name. Most of us were introduced to the exercise in gym class, and we were way too distracted by how awkward we all looked in middle school to think about such things. But what if we told you they are named after the one and only “Godfather of Fitness” Jack Lalanne?

To be fair, there is some contention to that. Some say jumping jacks are named after the guy who created the exercise, Jack Pershing, a World War I Army general. Whichever story you believe, it was Lalanne who popularized the jumping jacks in American culture for the betterment of people’s health. General Pershing, on the other hand … well, he invented them as a means for hazing cadets. So we’ve all got our own motivations.

Now, most of us know that the great Jack Lalanne is known for a lot more than engraining jumping jacks into our P.E. class warm ups. Lalanne made his life’s work a mission to make fitness accessible to everyone in the world. For him, it’s all about “helping people”.

Lalanne passed away just over five years ago at the age of 96. There’s more to say about his contribution to health and fitness than we have room for here, but as admirers of Lalanne’s work, we want to pass along some bits and pieces of what made his life so unique, and why we should all strive to be a little bit like Jack.

Sugar Addict to Fitness Fiend

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Jack Lalanne was a no-excuse guy. He believed you were who you were because of you, and you alone. That being said, it may still surprise you that Lalanne wasn’t exactly doing planches on the side of his crib.

The reality of his early life was much less envious. The way he told it, he was “a full blown sugarholic” by the time he was four years old. His mother, in order to pacify her young, rambunctious toddler, would give him a cloth of corn starch and sugar to suck on. By the time he was four, the bottom row of his baby teeth were rotted out.

He regularly suffered from headaches as he got older, was thirty pounds underweight (another testament to the fact that skinny does not mean healthy), and could not participate in sports. He said he was so angry the one time he tried to kill his brother and even contemplated suicide.

Finally, his mother, desperate to find answers for her son, took the 15-year-old to a lecture conducted by nutrition pioneer Paul C. Bragg. Lalanne wasn’t thrilled about the idea.

“My mother forced me to go,” he recalled. “I had dropped out of school for almost a year. I was a sick shut-in! I wouldn’t go out and see people. I had pimples and boils and I was wearing glasses. I was thin, wore a back brace and was so weak I couldn’t participate in sports. I didn’t want anyone to see me.”

But he went, and then got the chance to speak with Bragg for an hour backstage in what would blossom into a lifelong friendship (this was after Lalanne first described to Bragg his diet of cakes and ice cream and Bragg called Lalanne “a walking garbage can”).

But their conversation stuck, and Lalanne went home, prayed for the strength to do what he now knew must be done to turn his life around, and he never looked back.

“It was from hell to heaven,” Lalanne remembered, “just like that lecture said.”

A Brief Synopsis on His Fitness Career

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Video by CBS

Swapping the jelly donuts for fruits and veggies was not a popular thing for a California high school student to do in those days, so Lalanne had to be secretive about his nutrition.

“I had to take my lunch alone to the football field to eat so no one would see me eat my raw veggies, whole bread, raisins and nuts,” Lalanne once told an interviewer. “You don’t know the crap I went through.”

But he was working out every day, and not long after that, he opened the nation’s first health and fitness center in Oakland, California. Here he supervised weight and exercise training and espoused on the importance of nutrition to his some of his first audiences.

He’s credited for inventing a number of exercise machines, including the pull-down, the leg extension and what would later become the Smith machine. Pretty much any weight machine you’ve ever seen, they’re at least somehow derived from Lalanne’s creations.

And if you’re wondering where he would enjoy flying on his gold-plated private jet, he actually didn’t patent any of these inventions, so he didn’t have nearly the Scrooge McDuck-levels of money he probably should. Instead, he lived comfortably, and apparently never griped about it.

“In 1936…when I first started, I’d invent this equipment … we never thought about patents,” he said. “We thought about staying in business and paying our rent.”

And sure, we’re not so big on machines here at A Shot of Adrenaline, but that doesn’t mean you don’t recognize a guy that revolutionized the way people see fitness with this kind of innovation.

But of course, Lalanne’s biggest claim to fame was The Jack Lalanne Show, the longest running exercise television program in history. For 34 years, Lalanne captivated generation after generation with his straightforward approach to health and fitness.

It began in 1953 as a fifteen-minute segment on a TV station in San Francisco, sandwiched between the morning news and a cooking show. Lalanne paid for the airtime himself.

ABC eventually picked it up in 1959 and it was broadcast nationally until 1985.

An Evolved Diet

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We’ve always been big on the idea that you should find a diet that works for you. And that probably means some experimenting to see what you feel is getting your body the results it needs. Luckily, after Lalanne had his first chat with Bragg, he realized he wasn’t going to get fit on his regimen of sugar and fat.

Determined to make a change, he cut out meats altogether for a while.

“I was a strict vegetarian. Then I decided to enter a Mr. America contest (which I won) and in those days they thought that in order to build muscle you had to have meat. So I ate meat for a while,” he said.

As his nutrition continued to evolve, he decided to cut out most meats and stick to pescetarianism.

“Now I only eat fish–no chicken, no turkey, just fish. I get all my protein from fish and egg whites,” he told Shareguide.com in 2003.

He also cut out dairy altogether, and was a big proponent of drinking water and taking natural supplements.

“[I take] about 40 or 50 [supplements] a day,” he said in the interview. “Everything from A to Z. Ninety percent of them are natural, as much as I can take. I take enzymes, I take herbs, the whole bit!”

But again, while there many different ideas on how to optimize your nutrition, everyone not named Colonel Sanders agrees it doesn’t get handed to you through a drive-thru window. Lalanne was adamant about eliminating junk from people’s diets.

“Look how many Americans got up this morning with a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a donut,” he told Dateline as he was approaching his 80th birthday. “And they wonder why they’re sick and tired and they’re all screwed up, and why they look lousy, and why they’re not successful in life. They put the wrong fuel in this human machine.”

Again, Lalanne minced vegetables, not words.

“Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”

Age-Defying Stunts

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Jack Lalanne spent the better part of his golden years defying everything people thought about age and limitations. No one would ever call Lalanne a bully, but he humiliated Father Time all over the world longer than anyone ever has. If the two of them went to the same school, Father Time would have been walking home with a fresh wedgie every single day.

So what did Lalanne do to commemorate his apparent immortality? A whole lot, actually. He made it a point to mark various years with outrageous feats of strength and fitness. These are stunts that would be tough for an average group of twenty-year-olds to accomplish together, and Lalanne was able to do them himself.

Here’s a sample of his best work, courtesy of Newser.com:

1955, age 41: Swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf—a distance of 1.23 miles—while handcuffed.

1957, age 43: Swam the Golden Gate channel while towing a cabin cruiser … which weighed 2,500 pounds. The one-mile swim turned into a six-and-a-half-mile journey thanks to ocean currents.

1958, age 44: Paddle boarded nonstop for nine-and-a-half hours—a 30-mile trip.

1974, age 60: He repeated his 1955 Alcatraz stunt, but in addition to the handcuffs he was also shackled … and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

1976, age 62: To celebrate the US Bicentennial, he swam one mile—again shackled and handcuffed—while towing 13 boats (symbolizing the 13 original colonies) with 76 people on board.

Then on his 70th birthday, Lalanne got back into the water, handcuffed and shackled once again. And because the man enjoyed symbolism as much as a challenge, he towed 70 rowboats with 70 people in them for a full mile. It took over two hours and the waters were between 60 and 70 degrees. He finished with a crowd of people cheering for him, his wife the loudest among them.

But why do it at all? Why not hang up the swim trunks, handcuffs and shackles and call it a career? Possibly because those things look really weird hanging up together. But the real reason is the same Lalanne started spreading his message of fitness all those years ago.

“Jesus had twelve disciples with him, helping him to promote, he explained. “ I’m not comparing myself to Jesus, but I’m just saying, he called attention to his philosophy.”

It’s his philosophy of helping people be their best selves that was his motivation for over 70 years of fitness. But as always, it’s got to come down to you, which he admits can get tougher the older you get.

“You have to work at living, period. You’ve got to train like you are training for an athletic event. Most older people just give up. They think, ‘I’m too old for that,’ because they have an ache here or a pain there. Life is a pain in the butt — you’ve got to work at it.”

Even at 96, it feels like Lalanne left too quickly. There’s a lot more to learn about his life and we encourage you to seek it out, whether for education or inspiration. Here’s a big salute from A Shot of Adrenaline to a true inspiration and innovator, Mr. Jumping Jack himself.


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  1. Joe Perret

    Grew up watching Jack La Lane as a kid in the early sixties. My Dad was a physical education major in college and Mom would watch & exercise, we would follow & made it fun. Later during kids sports, calisthenics were primary warm up & experienced hardly any sports related injuries. Basic fundamentals were instructed by our coaches( dad& other parents). Later as an adult, I took the time to help teach basic exercises to my wife & children. I credit my Dad and other outside sources in our daily tasks so I rarely get injured doing simple stuff that gets overlooked by the average person. Jack La Lane was a stud who you could trust and his longevity pretty much proved his mantra.
    Besides dging would be Bad for his image, I truly thought he would hit the Century note for age, God bless him, but Heaven had Angel’s that needed Him to get in shape to Overcome Evil. Thank you for the space to honor him.

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