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Phil Carville: Jack LaLanne is a fitness legend

Phil Carville

I am sitting at home, COVID responsibly, on Saturday, Sept. 26, and thinking about a guy who was born exactly 106 years ago today and who died in 2011.

You probably knew him!

If you lived in the Bay Area in the 1950s and watched KGO-TV on your tiny black-and-white television — you knew him. Later, he was nationally syndicated, and then more knew him.

He was only 5 feet 6 inches tall, but he was a giant of a personality. The New York Times called him “The Founder of the Modern Fitness Movement.” His given name was Francois Henri LaLanne, but we knew him as “Jack”.


Jack was “the godfather of fitness” and the “first fitness superhero.” As a boy he was a “sugarholic” and “junk food junkie.” He had violent episodes directed against himself and others, describing himself as “a miserable … kid … it was like hell.” But he changed all that.

In 1936 in Oakland at the age of 21, he opened “Jack LaLanne’s Physical Culture Studio” — considered the nation’s first health club, where he supervised weight/exercise training and gave nutritional advice. Here is a little of his philosophy.


On Motivation

His primary goal was to motivate his clients to improve their overall health. However, in those days, doctors advised their patients to stay away from his health club — a business totally unheard of at the time. They warned their patients that “LaLanne was an exercise nut whose programs would make them muscle-bound and cause severe medical problems.”

Jack recalled that “people thought I was a charlatan. The doctors were against me — they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive.

On Enthusiasm

In 1951 Jack convinced the manager of KGO-TV in San Francisco to allow him a 15-minute daily show. Jack, in his jumpsuit and slippers, encouraged housewives to exercise. He was so popular that he was nationally syndicated in 1959 and became a huge celebrity.

With unbounded enthusiasm, Jack went on to expand his chain of gyms, become a television star/showman and perform incredible feats of strength and stamina. Here are only a few:

At age 42 — he did 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes on the “You Asked for It” TV show.

At age 54 — he ‘badly’ beat the 21-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger in a contest of strength. The amazed and graciously defeated Arnold admitted “Jack LaLanne is an animal.”

At age 61 — he put on handcuffs and swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf while pulling a half-ton boat.

At age 70 — Handcuffed and shackled, he towed 70 people in 70 rowboats one mile against winds and currents in Long Beach Harbor.

On Life

Jack loved life. “Living is a pain in the butt. It’s like an athletic event. You’ve got to train for it. You’ve got to eat right. You’ve got to exercise. Your health account and your bank account, they’re the same thing. The more you put in, the more you can take out. Exercise is king, and nutrition is queen. Together, you have a kingdom.” Jack built a kingdom.

On Women

Jack encouraged women to lift weights. But at the time it was thought this would make women look masculine and unattractive. Of course, the opposite happened.

Women knew they had to keep active and eat right to stay trim and healthy. Jack just gave them the encouragement to do what they already knew was right.

On Love

When asked about sex, LaLanne had a standard joke, saying that despite their advanced age, he and his wife still made love almost every night: “Almost on Monday, almost on Tuesday, almost on Wednesday…” 

On Death

“I’d hate to die; it would ruin my image.” Similarly, he stated, “If I died, people would say ‘Oh look, Jack LaLanne died. He didn’t practice what he preached.”

Jack passed away at the age of 96. His family confirmed that Jack continued his traditional workout until the day before he died. Dear Jack, you have been an inspiration. Rest in Peace.

A Note to Seniors

There are hundreds of seniors in our community who have yet to take Jack’s advice. Jack is as relevant today as he was 50 years ago. To put a smile on your face, go to YouTube and search for Jack LaLanne.

Give yourself a goal. Take charge of your life. Get to the gym. And maybe next year I will be writing an article about you … at age 70 towing boats across Scotts Flat Lake while handcuffed and shackled. I would love to do that!

Phil Carville is a co-owner of the South Yuba Club. He is happy to respond to comments or questions. He can be reached at philc@southyubaclub.com

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