BY PETER MOORE, editor of Men’s Health
The king of fitness is dead.
Long live the king!
I’m speaking, of course, of Jack LaLanne, the jumpsuited marvel who sprang into the nation’s consciousness in the 1950s, and died yesterday at the age of 96.
Let’s repeat that: dead, but age 96!
No Jim Fixx, he, succumbing while exercising in the prime of life. Jack was a man who remained in his prime for five decades. And he credited it all, as he put it in a 2004 interview with NPR, to his ability to “leave a hot bath, leave a hot woman, and go into a cold gym. It takes a lot of discipline, boy I’ll tell ya. . . . I never liked to exercise, but I like results.”
For a lot of us, “results” are synonymous with muscles. Jack defined the V-shape torso before it became the V-for-vanity ideal for generations of gym rats. From his teen years onward, he arose every morning to move his muscles, provoke them, build them. But it wasn’t just about the muscles. Any meathead can build those. Jack’s bigger accomplishment was his irrepressible attitude toward life. As he said, famously, before going into heart surgery a couple of years back: “I can’t die. It would ruin my image.”
Well, he has died now, but his image remains strong in so many ways.
I was one of those 60s kids who used to rise before my exhausted parents and turn on the television. There in black and white, and colorful as hell, was Jack, counting through the exercises with a “one, two, three, four.” The first time I saw him, I had no idea what to make of him. I’d never seen anybody exercise before, much less in a jumpsuit. Who was this freak?
But his message spread among my parents’ set, aided by this new medium of television, where he could set an example for the entire nation to follow. Before long, my mom was joining me in front of the TV, going through an early-morning workout in her Bermuda shorts and sweatshirt. She was never much of an exerciser, but I grew up in a world that Jack helped create. It roared through my elementary school with President Kennedy’s physical fitness initiative, got loose in popular culture with that goofball Austrian guy Schwarzenegger in Stay Hungry, became a way of life for millions of men around the world in Men’s Health magazine, and has been tweaked (and at times, perverted) by such workout “lifestyles” as Tae Bo, CrossFit, and P90X.
But it all started with Jack.
And I don’t think it’s simply because muscles look better than flab. It’s because Jack understood that while fitness (“Your health account is like your bank account: The more you put in, the more you can take out”) and eating well (“ten seconds on the lips and a lifetime on the hips”) are important, they aren’t most important.
First, you must inspire people to take charge of their lives. To understand that our bodies are built to work, and that they work better, and feel better, when they’re running on premium fuel. That an important part of the joy of living is the bodily joy of feeling great, feeling horny, feeling strong, feeling attractive to the woman who shares your bed. I now think of all that as important parts of “the Men’s Health effect,” but really, it was Jack’s idea first. And it comes down to realizing that you can’t accomplish any of the physical benefits without fully subscribing to a mental discipline first. It’s Jack’s Joy principle: “First we inspire them, then we perspire them.”
That, of course, is the reason that Jack will never die. Because he can keep on inspiring with his positive attitude, his “one, two, three, four,” his passion for living, even from the grave.
Our own Joe Kita spent time with Jack for a story we ran in 2000, when the fitness guru was a mere youth of 85 years. He told Joe “I wake up every morning with an erection a cat couldn’t scratch.”
Thanks for leaving us with that image, Jack. Inspirational to the end. Here’s hoping the gyms are crowded this afternoon, in your memory. And in pursuit of a hard life, a good life, that a cat couldn’t scratch.
—Peter Moore is editor of Men’s Health magazine and co-author, with Travis Stork, M.D., of The Lean Belly Prescription