Monday, September 27, 2010

Jack LaLanne: The Original Fitness Guru

Happy birthday to an American original.

Yesterday, Jack LaLanne turned ninety-six years old. Before Jane Fonda and her extremely warm legs, before abs of steel, aluminum or jello, and long before Richard Simmons had you sweating to the oldies while hiding a box of Milk Duds in his afro—there was Jack LaLanne.

As a child, he recalled a strong addiction to processed foods and sugar, but then became infatuated with weight training and nutrition after listening to a lecture about the evils of junk food. Mr. LaLanne obtained a chiropractic degree and opened his first health and fitness facility in 1936, emphasizing weight training for men and women alike—quite unconventional for that era.

His gyms grew in popularity and multiplied throughout the San Francisco Bay area, leading to a local television fitness show in 1951. Soon, LaLanne's program attained national prominence, and introduced America's housewives to the benefits of exercise without leaving the home. His most common prop was the common household chair, and when combined with the body's own leverage, a good workout could be had by any willing participant.

Here's a brief clip from Jack's television heyday:

As you can see, he was a pioneer with some of his attitudes, but quite old school with others.

One of my earliest memories is hanging out in my grandma's living room, watching her watching him. His workouts definitely exerted her, as small beadlets of perspiration accumulated upon her forehead, her matching polyester top and pants sealing in the heat like the cellophane coating on a strip of fruit leather.

I always knew the show was about to end when the organ kicked in and he launched into his pseudo-operatic voice, singing a blessing while his pecs twitched to the back beat.

This was also the signal for Grandma to finally make me a little lunch. Her glow had usually dried down to a dull matte finish by the time she placed the saltines next to my bowl of Campbell's bean with bacon or chicken and stars. And if I were lucky, she'd let me eat lunch on a TV tray while watching Dark Shadows or The Newlywed Game.

I loved those afternoons at Grandma's house. She had a number of mad grandma skills, like getting a tissue under my nose before my sneeze had even concluded. After several years of marveling at her sneeze response prowess, I finally discovered that she scooped tissues directly out of her bra. "That's how she does it," I remember thinking. "She must keep so many Kleenex in there that she buys her bras a cup size larger. What a sacrifice."

Okay, I started out talking about Jack LaLanne, and now I've changed the subject to my grandma's bras. This is wrong and I'm sorry.

Anyway, happy birthday, Jack. You've got more testosterone in the tips of your fingers than I have in my whole body.

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