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Living the Life God Intended

Jack LaLanne is the godfather of fitness. Turning 90 didn’t stop him. Read his inspiring story of strength and determination.


*Jack LaLanne passed away on January 23, 2011. We remember him with this inspiring story.

Next time you hop onto an exercise machine and get in a good workout, say a little prayer of thanks for Jack LaLanne. He’s the one who pioneered the way we keep fit today. It never would have happened if his despairing mom hadn’t dragged him to a talk by nutritionist Paul Bragg. “I was 15,” Jack recalls. “A miserable, scrawny kid with a sugar addiction. When I confessed my diet, Mr. Bragg called me ‘a human garbage pail.’ Greatest favor anyone ever did me.”

Jack swore off sweets and took up exercising, including wrestling and swimming, at the Berkeley, California, YMCA. One day he noticed two husky men who kept a set of barbells in a locked trunk. “Can I work out with those?” the wiry five-foot-four Jack inquired. The bodybuilders guffawed. “How about if I beat you wrestling?” Jack pressed. He pinned them both and got the key to the trunk. He took the weights to a foundry, had a set made for himself, then set up a gym where he developed his own conditioning program.

“At first, I was content simply being in condition,” Jack says. Then he read in the local paper that 17 firemen were being laid off because they couldn’t pass their physicals. He put all 17 on his exercise regimen. Within two months the firefighters were rehired. “When those firemen thanked me for saving their jobs, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: share the well-being I got from being fit with as many people as possible.”

In 1936, when he was 21, Jack opened a health/fitness spa—the first in the U.S. It featured workout machines that he improvised using pulleys, cables and weights—the forerunners of the machines used in gyms today. He promoted his fitness enterprises by celebrating milestones with Houdini-like flair. At 40 he swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, handcuffed. At 60 he repeated the feat, this time pulling a rowboat loaded with a half ton of sand. Seventy’s outing was a brisk dip in Long Beach Harbor towing 70 people in 70 boats for a mile and a half.

When Jack announced he’d celebrate birthday number 90 by swimming the 26 miles from Catalina Island to Long Beach, Elaine—Jack’s wife of 50 years and also a fitness nut—put her foot down. So he contented himself with his daily regimen of rising at 5 a.m. for an hour of weight lifting and an hour of resistance exercises in his pool.

He must love to work out, right? “Ha! I hate exercise,” Jack declares. “But I love what it does for me. When I was a sugaraholic teen I didn’t care if I lived or died. Exercise and a healthy diet have made me love every single day of the last 75 years.” Some might even call Jack a fitness evangelist. “Does God love an overweight man who’s never seen the inside of a gym and eats half a chocolate cake and a pint of ice cream daily, then prays each night that he won’t get a heart attack? Yes, God loves him, but he can’t do much about the guy’s prayer. I’m not saying you have to be like me, but everyone should do 30-minute workouts three to four times a week. Make it a lifetime commitment.”

Jack met a 90-year-old who was so frail he was resigned to getting a wheelchair. Under Jack’s tutelage the man doubled his strength in four months. “That’s what I live for,” Jack says. “Helping people make the most of their bodies and live the lives God intended them to.” Got that? If not, you might find Jack knocking on your door not with a Bible, but a set of weights with your name on them.

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