Woods. McGwire. Vick. Harding. Rodriguez. In the world of sports and fitness, it seems that every other day someone is falling from grace. “Larger than life” seems inevitably to be followed by “all too human.”
But we have at least one sports hero who has forged a career refreshingly clear of controversy … and who has done so for nearly a century.
When Jack LaLanne opened the world’s first modern “fitness club” in Oakland, CA in 1935 at the age of 21, no one could have predicted that he’d still be a fixture in the world of sports some 75 years later.
“I can’t die. It would ruin my image!” he’s quoted as saying. But LaLanne certainly doesn’t have to worry about his image. At 95 years old, he remains one of America’s greatest proponents of health and fitness, communicating his message of exercise and good nutrition to all who will listen.
And unlike the hype surrounding so many other sports celebrities, LaLanne practices what he preaches: He works out at least two hours each day, concentrating on stretch and pull exercises plus swimming.
The story of Jack LaLanne was not always fitness and health, however. Like Charles Atlas, another bodybuilding and fitness pioneer, LaLanne hardly grew up as the picture of strength. But it was a teen-age encounter with nutrition pioneer Paul Bragg that inspired LaLanne to dramatically change his daily routine by joining the local YMCA in the San Francisco Bay area, becoming involved in bodybuilding and high school sports, and focusing on healthy eating.
It wasn’t long before LaLanne was experimenting with new weight training equipment of his own design, attracting a steady stream of policemen, firefighters and neighborhood toughs to his family’s backyard – which would lead to opening his first fitness center just a few years later.
The list of “firsts” in Jack LaLanne’s career in fitness is certainly impressive:
The first host of a nationally syndicated television exercise show (1951).
The first person to open a coed health club (eventually to become the 200-unit European Health Spa chain, later sold to Bally). At age 41, swimming the entire length of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge underwater, with 140 lbs. of equipment – a world record.
At age 42, becoming the world-record holder for pushups (1,033 in 23 minutes).
The first person to promote weight training for women and older adults.
The first sports personality to endorse vitamins and exercise equipment on the TV airwaves.
(Coincidentally, LaLanne was also one of the first sports celebrities to warn against the dangers of smoking – long before medical science would come to the same conclusion.)
The Jack LaLanne Show would continue on television for 35 years. But the then 71-year-old host was certainly not ready to retire. Instead, he’s remained active as an author, spokesperson and motivational speaker on health and fitness in the 25 years since.
Moving easily between the world of sports and entertainment, Jack LaLanne has been awarded a lifetime achievement award from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports (1996) … along with getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2002). And at age 95, LaLanne isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, his eleventh book on fitness, Live Young Forever, was published just last year.
“Dying is easy. Living, you’ve got to work at,” LaLanne is fond of saying. By the looks of it, Jack LaLanne has certainly followed his own medicine – and it’s worked out beautifully for him.