Still Going Strong

Decades before Jane Fonda felt the burn and Suzanne Somers thinned her thighs, Jack LaLanne was teaching viewers how to stay trim. At every stage of his 70-year career--first as a competitive body-builder and gym owner, later as the host of a long-running exercise show--LaLanne, now 91, says his goal was always the same: to help people get strong and stay active. Compact and energetic, LaLanne still displays his showman's sense of humor. (The secret of his longevity? He responds without missing a beat: "Clean thoughts and dirty girls.") But when it comes to good living, the godfather of fitness gets serious. "There are no shortcuts. No magic," he says. "The truth is, you've got to make smart food choices and exercise, not once in a while, but every day."

Fitness buffs may yawn, but back in the 1930s, as LaLanne was getting started, that kind of straight talk was positively revolutionary. In 1936, when meat and potatoes was a meal and physical fitness was a subculture, LaLanne opened a combination gym, juice bar and health-food store in Oakland, California. In the 1950s, on his TV show, LaLanne suggested (gasp!) that daily calisthenics rather than girdles would keep housewives trim. Experts berated him for using weights, fretting that his fans would get unsightly muscles. "My whole career, doctors and so-called experts called me a crackpot and charlatan," he says. "But I was right."

Regular folks always liked him, though, because he practiced what he preached. A sickly child, LaLanne transformed his life when he was a teen by cutting out sugar and initiating a routine of rigorous exercise, and was named Mr. America in 1955. He opened a chain of gyms (later licensed to Bally) and, in 1951, launched his fitness show. From a spare set, with a handful of props, LaLanne showed the folks at home how he got--and stayed--strong. "Viewers could see I knew what I was talking about," says LaLanne. "The Jack LaLanne Show" aired for 34 years.

What kept them tuning in? LaLanne says he tried to get fans to think positively by peppering his fitness instruction with cheery aphorisms ("Train for life like an athletic event!"). He also made fitness fun--even bringing pets on the show. Clad in his trademark jumpsuit, LaLanne did crunches, then his dog, Happy, did tricks. "It kept the ratings up," he recalls.

As fitness moved into the mainstream, LaLanne's star began to fade. In the 1980s, a new generation of glitzy instructors promised dramatic results fast, and LaLanne's show, which focused on the fundamentals, was canceled. He became an infomercial staple, hawking high-powered juicers--so far, he's sold more than a million of the $150 machines.

LaLanne says he won't retire. He lectures regularly and dines out nightly with his wife of 50 years, Elaine, in their hometown of Morro Bay, California. (He favors lean protein, raw vegetables and fruit.) He works out daily and wishes more people would do the same. "Even if you use a walker," he says, "you can still do this." And just like the old days, he executes a set of perfect leg lifts.