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10 things we learned from Jack LaLanne

With the passing of the “Godfather of fitness,” we reflect on the essential lessons he taught us about health, wellness and exercise

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Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but Jack LaLanne, who passed away on January 23, did invent modern fitness.

Sometimes called the “Godfather of fitness,” Jack was born in 1914, a time when circumstances ensured we got enough exercise. Back then, people engaged in a great deal of physical labour and activity in their everyday lives, but as mid-century approached technology started doing more of our work for us (not too mention junk food became more prevalent), and as a society we started to get fatter.

Jack saw it coming, and worked hard to do something about it. He opened one of the first health clubs in the United States in 1936 and launched a daily fitness television show in the ’50s that lasted for 34 years. He combated the medical establishment of the time, which considered vigorous exercise dangerous, and became well-known for completing numerous implausible feats of strength and endurance to prove that his training methods made people healthier and more functional.

These days we’ve got “fitness gurus” who make outlandish weight loss claims and then gets sued for their brand of diet pills; another that tells you it only takes eight minutes in the morning; and one Jersey Shore “guru” advocates doing abdominal crunches from a tanning bed.

Unlike some of the modern imitators, Jack LaLanne was the real deal, and he taught us a lot of important lessons about diet and exercise, such as:

1. Weightlifting is good: Jack faced a lot of criticism from the medical establishment for this one. He said to the LA Times, “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, you athletes will get muscle-bound’ — this is what I had to go through.” Regardless of criticism, Jack invented the modern health club (and many of the machines used in them) and spurred a worldwide interest in weightlifting. Eventually the medical community caught up to him and realized that, yes, weightlifting really is healthy. Even kids can do it.

2. “If man made it, don’t eat it.”: This was one of Jack’s famous quotes. He also said, “If it tastes good, spit it out.” The latter I agree with but I think requires a bit of clarification: I think that if it tastes so good that you can’t control intake, then don’t even start eating it in the first place. I think mangoes are one of the most delicious things on the planet, but after eating one, I’m good. Conversely, I can lose control and plow through a box of Oreo’s or a pint of Haagen Daz easily.

3. Your body can handle a lot more exercise than you think: Jack exercised for at least two hours a day even into his nineties. There is less worry about overtraining than there is pacing yourself and ensuring you get enough rest. If you slowly build up a tolerance to exercise, you can become a true workout warrior like Jack was.

4. Focus on functionality: Sure, Jack had an impressive-looking physique—that could do amazing things. He once did 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes, could do a thousand chinups in an hour, and completed such feats as swimming from Alcatraz to the mainland while towing a rowboat and handcuffed.

5. Fitness is fun: Jack had a natural exuberance and ever-present smile. He always talked about how much fun a fit lifestyle was, and he inspired millions around the world to get in shape and enjoy doing it.

6. Use it or lose it: Jack was concerned about how Westerners were getting fatter and lazier, and he continuously lectured on how if you didn’t exercise that you would lose functionality and have an infirm retirement.

7. If you have lost it, you can get it back: Jack always taught that even the elderly could dramatically improve their strength—it’s never too late to start getting active.

8. Find out what you’re capable of: Jack’s feats inspired many to achieve high levels of fitness. When he was just opening his first gym, jogging hardly existed and now we have things like Ironman triathlons all over the world, and average people everywhere run marathons.

9. Be a good example to others: Jack inspired others, but he wanted other people to inspire their friends and family to create a domino effect of creating a fitter society.

10. Never stop being active: Jack kept moving right up until the end of his life, which sadly came to an end on January 23, 2011. Jack lived active, spry, and amazing for 96 years.

He will be missed, but his legacy of fitness will endure.

James S. Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. Visit www.bodyforwife.com or email him at
james@bodyforwife.com.