His hair might be thinning slightly, his voice gets a little raspy at times and his once-bulging frame has shrunk down to more normal proportions, but San Francisco native and fitness icon Jack LaLanne has not lost an ounce of his trademark vigor in his 10th decade on the planet.
“I keep on telling people,” said LaLanne, who celebrated his 95th birthday Saturday, “anything in life is possible, as long as you make it happen!”
Although he has become famous for his prodigious feats of strength — and equally prodigious feats of marketing, as exemplified by his successful lines of fruit juicers, self-help books and guest lecture appearances — LaLanne actually spent the early part of his life as a sick, bedridden weakling growing up in San Francisco and across the Bay in Berkeley.
Unable to shake his cravings for ice cream, candy and pie, LaLanne suffered from chronic headaches — which at one point forced him to miss six months of school — until he was 15 years old, when he attended a lecture in Oakland by pioneering fitness advocate Paul Bragg that transformed his life.
“He told us that if you obey nature’s laws, you can be born again,” LaLanne said. “I became a strict vegetarian for six years after I heard him speak, and I immediately felt my energy level triple.”
In 1936, LaLanne opened his first gym in Oakland — although the strongman conceded that in the early days, “people stayed away from me like the plague.”
While he slowly built an image in the Bay Area with his persistence — “I would take the name and number of every fat high school kid I saw and pester him until he joined my gym” — it wasn’t until he embarked on his legendary endurance tests that he became a household name.
LaLanne’s inaugural undertaking took place in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay. He swam the entire span of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater, all while carrying 140 pounds of equipment, including two scuba tanks. It was 1954, and LaLanne was 40 years old.
As the years progressed and his popularity grew — heightened by the 34-year stint of his syndicated fitness television show — LaLanne’s trademark exhibits of strength grew all the more extraordinary, and they frequently incorporated Bay Area landmarks.
One of his most noteworthy accomplishments came in 1955, when he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf — shackled in handcuffs.
“They said that no one could ever escape from Alcatraz,” LaLanne said. “I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Along with providing him the landscape to wow audiences with his physical prowess, San Francisco also played a pivotal role in introducing him to the love of his life, Elaine, his wife of 50 years.
“She was the Girl Friday over at KGO and I was doing a special there with one of my buddies,” LaLanne said. “I looked at her and was completely blown away. I ended up doing pushups for her all show. Eventually, she caved in for me.”
The couple moved to the warmer climate of Southern California in 1959. But when LaLanne isn’t traveling for motivational speaking events or book-promoting tours, he tries to sneak in time to visit the Bay Area as often as possible.
“I love San Francisco. Unfortunately, I don’t get up there as much as I’d like,” LaLanne said. “I really miss all the great restaurants up there. They used to have a special Jack LaLanne salad over at John’s Grill. Those guys sure know how to prepare some food.”
Along with LaLanne’s legendary workout schedule — he still lifts weights for 90 minutes a day and swims for a half-hour — snacking on healthy food like his eponymous salads has been the key to his longevity.
He eats six hard-boiled eggs a day — no yolks — and the only meat he’ll touch is fresh salmon.
“I’ve got two mottos,” LaLanne said. “‘If man makes it, don’t eat it,’ and ‘if it tastes good, spit it out!’”
Ebullient aphorisms like that have kept LaLanne in the business of selling fitness for more than six decades. And even though he’s been around for more than one-third of this country’s existence, he has no plans to slow down any time soon.
This month he published his 11th book, “Live Young Forever,” a self-help guide that he says will be the greatest best-seller of all time.
“You are as young as you feel,” LaLanne said. “I know that you only live once, and you better make it as constructive as possible. That’s why I’m here — to help people.”
- “Your waistline is your lifeline.”
- “Exercise is king, nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”
- “Better to wear out than rust out.”
- “First we inspire them, then we perspire them.”
- “I can’t die — it would ruin my image.”
- “Your health account is like your bank account — the more you put in, the more you can take out.”
- “Make haste slowly.”
- “Eat right and you can’t go wrong.”
Jack LaLanne celebrates birthdays a little different than most people. Instead of chowing down on cake and ice cream, LaLanne likes to endure grueling tests of fitness.
His latest feat — an attempt to swim 20 miles from Los Angeles to Catalina Island on his 95th birthday, which was Saturday — continued a lifetime of jaw-dropping stunts.
In 1954, when he turned 40, LaLanne — strapped with 140 pounds of equipment, including two air tanks — swam the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater. When he turned 44, he paddle-boated 27 miles to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, a trip that took him 9½ hours. The next year, he did 1,000 star jumps and 1,000 chin-ups in 1 hour 22 minutes.
When he turned 65, he towed 65 boats, filled with 6,500 pounds of wood pulp, in a lake near Tokyo. LaLanne one-upped that feat five years later, when he towed 70 boats filled with 70 people for 1½ miles while shackled in handcuffs.
Looking back on his list of achievements, LaLanne said the star jumps and chin-ups were the most brutal exhibition of strength.
“Man, my hands had blisters all over the place,” he said. “That one was rough.”
— Will Reisman
Family: Married for 50 years to Elaine; three kids: Yvonne, who lives in Walnut Creek, Dan, who lives in L.A., and John, who lives in Hawaii
Residence: San Luis Obispo area
Favorite movie: “Gone With the Wind”
Favorite book: “Gray’s Anatomy”
Favorite television show: “I like them all, but I’d have to go with the ‘Jack LaLanne Show’”
Last book read: “Live Young Forever” by Jack LaLanne
Favorite San Francisco restaurant: John’s Grill and North Beach Restaurant
Best workout tip: Be consistent — get a plan for the rest of your life and stick with it
If he could have dinner with one person not living: Socrates
Favorite meal: “My favorite meal is salmon, four or five pieces of fresh fruit, and I swear by egg whites”
Living person he most admires: Wife
Biggest fear: “I have no fears — I take it one day at a time.”
Talent he would most like to have: Singing
Greatest achievement: Marrying his wife; second would be swimming from Alcatraz while handcuffed