Derrick Z. Jackson

LaLanne’s legacy of fitness

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / January 25, 2011

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FITNESS PIONEER Jack LaLanne often joked that dying would wreck his image. LaLanne died this weekend at age 96, but it is our image we should be concerned about. Without him and all the exercise gurus he inspired, this flabby nation would be a lot fatter.

He warned us a half century ago that we were wrecking ourselves physically. In one of those grainy black and white clips from his television show, he walked over to an American flag and asked viewers if they ever stopped to think about what made the flag possible. He said it was “the tremendous thought, the sacrifice, the lives lost, the toil, the fitness that went into it.’’ LaLanne then added, “But now that we have too much of everything in this great land of ours, too many things are being done for us, we have become soft mentally and physically . . . We are going to be losing our place very sudden-like as a first-class power if something isn’t done radically to make the people more fit.’’

Tying fitness to patriotism was a stretch for an America still trying to understand the science of fitness. As retold in the New York Times obituary, LaLanne said, “People thought I was a charlatan and a nut. The doctors were against me — they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks.’’ As recounted in a Los Angeles Times obituary, “When I first started out, I was considered a crackpot. The doctors used to say, ‘Don’t go to that Jack LaLanne, you’ll get hemorrhoids, you won’t get an erection, you women will look like men.’’

We still have not tied fitness to patriotism, even though Michelle Obama proudly lifts weights, runs on a treadmill, and works out in general every day. If anything, we went the other way. As the softening America slipped in global education rankings, the focus on standardized testing resulted in the elimination of minimum physical education requirements around the nation, including Massachusetts 15 years ago. According to a report last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 57 percent of all school districts required elementary schools to have regularly scheduled recess. By high school, the erosion of physical education is so severe that only 17 percent of American high school students meet current physical activity requirements.

“When children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, multiple benefits accrue,’’ the report said.

LaLanne was a living testimony to those benefits. When he was 15, he was the type of kid too many American youth sadly are today. He was a junk-food junkie, often ill, and possessing a violent temper. His mother took him to a nutrition lecture where LaLanne was asked what he ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When he responded that all he ate was cake, pie, and ice cream, nutritionist Paul Bragg told LaLanne, “You are a walking garbage can.’’

LaLanne listened to Bragg and the rest was history, as far as LaLanne’s personal fitness industry goes. But in the last half-century of his life, the percentage of obese Americans has dramatically increased. In 1985, there was no US state above 14 percent in obesity. Today, nine states are 30 percent obese or more. Only Colorado and the District of Columbia are under 20 percent and just barely.

The best thing about LaLanne, for those who did listen, was that the former sugar junkie did not sugar coat the work it requires to stay fit. On his 90th birthday LaLanne told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, “I hate to work out. I’d rather take a beating. To leave a hot bed and a hot woman to go into a cold gym at five in the morning — that takes discipline. But I like the results.’’

Dying at 96 did not wreck Jack LaLanne’s image. He remains an inspiration to rebuild ours.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at