Before Jazzercise, before spinning, before kettle bells, Pilates, Wii Fit, Zumba or the Shake Weight, there was Jack LaLanne. The tireless fitness guru who taught the world how to get in shape for nearly 80 years died on Sunday afternoon at his home in Morro Bay, California, due to respiratory failure resulting from pneumonia. He was 96.
“He was surrounded by his family and passed very peacefully and in no distress … and with the football game on Sunday, so everything was normal,” daughter Yvonne LaLanne, 66, told Reuters.
LaLanne spent his life encouraging couch potatoes to be fit, helping to jump-start the modern fitness movement while proving that it’s never too late to get in shape. Though a modest 5′ 6″, LaLanne had an oversize personality and the monster heart of a salesman when it came to promoting exercise. From swimming from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf while handcuffed and pulling a 1,000-pound boat at age 60 to slapping the cuffs on again and pulling 70 people in 70 boats for more than a mile through Long Beach Harbor a decade later, LaLanne never stopped encouraging Americans to push themselves and their bodies in search of peak fitness.
Born Francois Henri LaLanne in San Francisco on September 26, 1914, to French immigrant parents, LaLanne spent his early years on his parents’ sheep farm in Bakersfield, California, according to the New York Times. Pimply and nearsighted at age 15, LaLanne described himself as a junk-food junkie high school dropout whose life was changed one day when his mother took him to a women’s club for a talk on nutrition and health.
Inspired, LaLanne began hitting the local YMCA to lift weights, ditched the sugary snacks and began studying “Gray’s Anatomy” to learn about the body’s muscles. By the time he was 21, he opened his first fitness studio and launched “The Jack LaLanne Show” in 1951 in the San Francisco area, going national eight years later with the workout program in which he used such primitive props as broomsticks, a chair and a stretchy rubber cord.
The show aired in various incarnations through the mid-1980s and LaLanne became a favorite guest on late-night and radio talk shows, where he would eagerly show off his physical prowess, doing fingertip push-ups and other stunts most men half his age could not perform. In addition to the TV show, LaLanne opened a string of fitness studios across the country, invented and sold exercise machines, and in recent years famously marketed the Power Juicer, a mixer that blends raw vegetables and juices into healthy shakes.
LaLanne was such an institution that he was often asked to do cameos in films and TV shows, including “The Addams Family,” “Mr. Ed,” “Arli$$,” “The Simpsons” and the 1990 Leslie Nielsen horror spoof “Repossessed.”