On a fall late afternoon in 1975 I was watching the news when legendary master of fitness Jack Lalanne celebrated his sixty-first birthday by performing a physical feat unimaginable to most. For the ensuing thirty-five years I recalled that he’d swum handcuffed from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf while towing a thousand-pound boat. But, reviewing his career highlights online today, I see Lalanne had done that exercise a year before, and on this day he’d handcuffed himself and swum the length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater while towing another half-ton boat. I won’t dispute the particulars of his birthday prowess. This is what most inspired two friends and me: upon reaching the shores of San Francisco, Lalanne dropped to the sand and pumped out three or four pushups. I cheered and also dropped and began doing pushups.
When he was fresh, Jack Lalanne daily did hundreds of pushups at a time, and in 1955 at age forty-two he cranked out more than a thousand in twenty-three minutes for the television and studio audience of You Asked For It. There would be many other stunning physical achievements: at age sixty-five he towed sixty-five boats filled with sixty-five hundred pounds, while handcuffed and shackled, in a lake near Tokyo; at age seventy, also shackled and handcuffed, he battled strong winds and currents while towing seventy rowboats one mile in Long Beach Harbor. On a birthday in his eighties, according to my memory of the newscast, he stayed home, arose early, and vigorously stretched, lifted weights, and swam for two hours. I could fire out more staggering numbers, but they miss the essence of Jack Lalanne. Far more than a fitness phenomenon, he was a motivational wizard. He was a life force. He was the personification of joy and positive thinking.
Checking the news stories and blogs about the death Sunday of Jack Lalanne, I see that those who admired him are thinking what I am. How could this stud have died at any age, particularly as a youthful ninety-six year old? How could this man, who’d been exercising and feeling well only a week earlier, have been silenced by something as seemingly unthreatening, to him, as pneumonia? Why didn’t he jump out of bed and dash into his gym and exorcise all his problems? That’s what he did for almost a century. And for that, those who treasure fitness will always revere Jack Lalanne. We’ll thank him for decades ago encouraging people to get strong, eat right, and be healthy. We’ll admire him for telling women, in a hidebound era, that they should exercise and be in shape and that by so doing they not only wouldn’t diminish their femininity, they would enhance it. The man who built the gymnasiums and starred for years on his TV exercise show and lived to the hilt what he preached will never really die. A spirit that large is eternal.
Tomorrow morning I’m increasing my workout.
Editorial Notes: I can’t be even a mini Jack Lalanne in the realm of diet. He abhorred and avoided sugar and diary products while I adore and devour them. He also said, “If it tastes good, spit it out.” If it tastes good, I get second and third helpings.