Remembering Fitness Icon Jack LaLanne

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Jack LaLanne was extolling the virtues of healthy eating and physical fitness decades before either became popular. With a daily TV show that made him a household name, LaLanne went on to become an American icon. He passed away Sunday at his home in Morro Bay, Calif., at the age of 96.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Hollywood's Walk of Fame became a memorial today for one man. The star for Jack LaLanne is covered with flowers. Beginning in the 1950s, LaLanne made America care about fitness with a TV show that ran for more than three decades. He died yesterday of pneumonia at his California home. He was 96.

NPR's Tom Goldman profiled Jack LaLanne back in 2004, and today, he has this remembrance.

TOM GOLDMAN: Honest to God, when I heard the news last night that Jack LaLanne had died, my first reaction was: Really? Because I think after spending that day with him in 2004, when he was 89, I came away thinking: This little guy may go forever.

Mr. JACK LaLANNE (Fitness Expert): Harder Jack. Come on. Harder. I've only got one enemy: Jack LaLanne. That's it.

GOLDMAN: I'll always remember my first sight of him: chest-deep in water in his outdoor pool wearing a red swim cap, blue Speedos, pushing and pulling yellow resistance devices. It was 7:15 in the morning, and LaLanne was on. All I had to do was point my microphone.

Mr. LaLANNE: You know, for me, you know, I usually hit the gym around five or six in the morning. To leave a hot bed, leave a hot woman, go into a cold gym takes a lot of discipline, boy, I'll tell you. But the wonderful thing - I hate it, I've never liked to exercise, but I like results.

GOLDMAN: Imagine a drill sergeant so charismatic, so positively chirpy that you don't realize he's kicking your flabby rear end. That was the magic of Jack LaLanne for the millions of Americans who watched him on black-and-white TV in his trademark one-piece jumpsuit.

Mr. LaLANNE: I'm not talking about the hangover, the kind that you get from overindulgence. I'm talking about the kind you get from lack of exercise and eating too much of the wrong foods. You know, you're hanging here and hanging here, and everything's hanging.

GOLDMAN: And for me, who dared to ask LaLanne whether busy, busy people really have time for all that exercise...

Mr. LaLANNE: Stand up. Don't use your hand. Sit down. Stand up. Now get your buttocks only about a half-inch off the chair. Now down, just a half-inch, a little lower, a little lower. Now up. Now do it fast, fast, up, down. Now do it slow, real slow, all the way down. Now, see, you're watching television, and you're getting a workout. You feel that, don't you?

GOLDMAN: Yes, I do.

LaLanne spread his message of healthy living with a missionary passion and devotion. Indeed, it was, he told me, his religion.

Mr. LaLANNE: My life. That's why I was put on this Earth, I believe this, to help people.

GOLDMAN: But first he had to help himself. LaLanne says as a kid, he was a sugarholic with an uncontrollable temper. He even considered suicide. But at 15, he heard a lecture by a health nutritionist who talked about how you could be born again by obeying nature's laws: exercising and eating proper food.

LaLanne was hooked by the message. He stopped eating sugar forever. He started exercising daily. To prove it all worked, he would do the stunts, like swimming handcuffed and towing a boat from Alcatraz to San Francisco at the age of 60. But it was the personal messages to millions that resonated most. He never stopped trying to help us all have our own fitness epiphanies.

A couple of years ago, LaLanne said: I can't afford to die. It would wreck my image. Today, that image is intact, and guaranteed, Jack LaLanne wouldn't want us to mourn. He'd want us to stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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