MORRO BAY (CBS 5 / AP) — Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru and Bay Area native who inspired television viewers to trim down, eat well and pump iron for decades before diet and exercise became a national obsession, died Sunday afternoon. He was age 96.
The “Godfather of fitness” died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay along California’s central coast, his longtime agent Rick Hersh said.
LaLanne ate healthy and exercised every day of his life up until the end, Hersh said.
“I have not only lost my husband and a great American icon, but the best friend and most loving partner anyone could ever hope for,” said Elaine LaLanne, Lalanne’s wife of 51 years and a frequent partner in his television appearances.
Just before he had heart valve surgery in late 2009, Jack LaLanne told family and friends gathered for his 95th birthday party at John’s Grill, an historic San Francisco restaurant on Ellis Street, that dying would wreck his image.
“I can’t die, it would be bad for my image,” Lalanne said at the time, recalled Grateful Dead drummer and longtime friend Mickey Hart.
“He was amazing,” said 87-year-old former “Price is Right” host Bob Barker, who credited LaLanne’s encouragement with helping him to start exercising often.
“He never lost enthusiasm for life and physical fitness,” Barker said on Sunday night. “I saw him in about 2007 and he still looked remarkably good. He still looked like the same enthusiastic guy that he always was.”
LaLanne credited a sudden interest in fitness with transforming his life as a teen, and he worked tirelessly over the next eight decades to transform others’ lives, too.
“The only way you can hurt the body is not use it,” LaLanne said. “Inactivity is the killer and, remember, it’s never too late.”
His workout show was a television staple from the 1950s to the ’70s. LaLanne and his dog Happy encouraged kids to wake their mothers and drag them in front of the television set. He developed exercises that used no special equipment, just a chair and a towel.
He also founded a chain of 200 fitness studios, the first one in Oakland, that bore his name and later became Bally Total Fitness. In recent years, he touted the value of raw fruit and vegetables as he helped market a machine called Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer.
When he turned 43 in 1957, he performed more than 1,000 push-ups in 23 minutes – setting a world record – on the “You Asked For It” television show. At 41, he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco while handcuffed. At age 60, he did it again — but this time was also shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat. Ten years later, he performed a similar feat in Long Beach harbor.
He maintained a youthful physique and joked in 2006 that “I can’t afford to die. It would wreck my image.”
“I never think of my age, never,” LaLanne said in 1990. “I could be 20 or 100. I never think about it, I’m just me. Look at Bob Hope, George Burns. They’re more productive than they’ve ever been in their whole lives right now.”
Fellow bodybuilder and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger credited LaLanne with taking exercise out of the gymnasium and into living rooms.
“He laid the groundwork for others to have exercise programs, and now it has bloomed from that black and white program into a very colorful enterprise,” Schwarzenegger said in 1990.
In 1936 in Oakland, LaLanne opened a health studio that included weight-training for women and athletes. Those were revolutionary notions at the time, because of the theory that weight training made an athlete slow and “muscle bound” and made a woman look masculine.
“You have to understand that it was absolutely forbidden in those days for athletes to use weights,” he once said. “It just wasn’t done. We had athletes who used to sneak into the studio to work out.
“It was the same with women. Back then, women weren’t supposed to use weights. I guess I was a pioneer,” LaLanne said.
The son of poor French immigrants, he was born on Sept. 26, 1914 in San Francisco and grew up to become a sugar addict, he said.
The turning point occurred one night when he heard a lecture by pioneering nutritionist Paul Bragg, who advocated the benefits of brown rice, whole wheat and a vegetarian diet.
“He got me so enthused,” LaLanne said. “After the lecture I went to his dressing room and spent an hour and a half with him. He said, ‘Jack, you’re a walking garbage can.'”
Soon after, LaLanne constructed a makeshift gym in his back yard. “I had all these firemen and police working out there and I kind of used them as guinea pigs,” he said.
He said his own daily routine usually consisted of two hours of weightlifting and an hour in the swimming pool.
“It’s a lifestyle, it’s something you do the rest of your life,” LaLanne said. “How long are you going to keep breathing? How long do you keep eating? You just do it.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Dan and Jon, and a daughter, Yvonne.