Those of a certain age in the United States will no doubt remember the long-running television show of the late fitness expert Jack LaLanne.
I only watched the tail end of it now and then if I was tuning into the next programme. I figured LaLanne was born to exercise and a spartan diet.
How wrong I was.
Whilst investigating SSRIs — e.g. Prozac — I ran across information about LaLanne’s childhood which surprised me. If he had been growing up today, he would have been a perfect prescription drug candidate (emphases mine):
LaLanne was addicted to sugar as a child, causing him to commit acts of violence, including setting his parents’ house on fire and attacking his brother with an axe.
In 2000, he told Larry King on CNN:
When I was 15 years old, I dropped out of school for six months because I was getting failing grades, I was a troublemaker, I was 30 pounds underweight.
One imagines him as a wiry, hyperactive adolescent with bags of misdirected energy.
LaLanne’s Wikipedia entry includes these memories of that time, saying that he was:
‘a miserable … kid… it was like hell‘. Besides having a bad temper, he also suffered from headaches and bulimia …
His parents were beside themselves. Then, one day in 1929, his mother decided to take him to a public lecture near their home in California:
Jack LaLanne’s mother dragged her 15 year-old son to a lecture by health crusading nutritionist Paul C. Bragg. They arrived late and had to sit on the stage close to Bragg in front of some 3,000 people …
“My mother forced me to go,” LaLanne recalls. “I had dropped out of school for almost a year. I was a sick shut-in! I wouldn’t go out and see people. I had pimples and boils and I was wearing glasses. I was thin, wore a back brace and was so weak I couldn’t participate in sports. I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
As we all know, sitting near a speaker is not a good idea if one could be a target of the lecture.
My mother and I sat in front of 3,000 people. It had to be the most embarrassing and humiliating time of my life. I didn’t want anyone to see me, and I thought they were all looking at sickly me. Little did I know that most of them had health problems too!
Afterward, Bragg invited him to meet with him privately backstage. The nutritionist did not mince words:
Dr. Bragg asked me, ‘What do you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner?’ and I told him, ‘Cakes, pies and ice cream!’ He said, ‘Jack, you are a walking garbage can.’ That night I got down on my knees, by the side of my bed and I prayed. I didn’t say, ‘God, make me a Mr. America.’ I said, ‘Please give me the will power and intestinal fortitude to refrain from eating wrong, lifeless, dead foods when the urge comes over me. God, please give me the strength to exercise when I don’t feel like it.’”
There hasn’t been a jelly donut in LaLanne’s life since Bragg told him, “The best part of a donut is the hole.”
Taking Bragg’s words to heart, the young LaLanne turned his back on junk and set his sights on a proper diet combined with exercise. LaLanne told Larry King:
I went back into school. I turned out to be a champion athlete. I won best … back and best chest in Mr. America. It just changed my life. I was a whole different human being.
People laugh at titles like that nowadays. Yet, during the 1920s and the Depression, such competitions not only won people money but fame to a varying extent. They were akin to television reality shows today.
He told King he opened a gymnasium in 1931, while he was still in high school. Five years later, in 1936, LaLanne opened his first proper health and fitness spa in Oakland, California, establishing the template for the health clubs we know today. (He ended up with 200 of them, which he later licensed to Bally. Today, they are known as Bally Total Fitness.)
His father Jean, a French immigrant, died the same year Jack’s first spa opened. LaLanne put his father’s death down to a bad diet, but Jean and his wife Jennie were both from the southwest of France and arrived in New Orleans (separately) as children. The couple married and lived in California — San Francisco (Jack’s birthplace), Bakersfield and Berkeley. One of Jack’s older brothers died at the age of five. So there were stressors in the parents’ lives besides diet. That said, LaLanne’s mother Jennie lived until the age of 89.
After Jack LaLanne finished high school, he earned a Doctor of Chiropractic degree. Although he never practised as a chiropractor, he studied anatomy and applied it to his fitness and weight training programmes. His eponymous television programme debuted in 1951 and was the first exercise show; it ran until 1985.
When a 21-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger first came to America in 1968, he witnessed 54-year-old Jack LaLanne down on Venice Beach in California doing thousands of push-ups and chin-ups. A challenge was declared — and Arnold, the youngest Mr. Universe at the time, went on to lose. Badly.
“I beat him in chin-ups and push-ups,” LaLanne says. “He said, ‘That Jack LaLanne’s an animal! I was sore for four days. I couldn’t lift my arms!’ “
Whilst I am personally diametrically opposed to much of what LaLanne advocated in terms of diet (vegetables, fruit, fish only) and religious belief (his God was a higher power), he did live until the age of 96. (His family — widow, sons and daughter — are keeping his business going.) Clearly, his formula worked for him and countless others around America. This photo was taken a few years before he died. He did not look decrepit.
The moral of the story goes back to his youth and to his mother taking him to a nutritionist.
Diet and exercise — perhaps with sound counselling — will beat a brain-frying drug any day of the week. I pray that more parents try this route with their ‘problem child’ before resorting to SSRIs.