Sunday a week ago, Jack LaLanne did the unthinkable - he died.
One of the founding fathers of physioculture, the ebullient strongman who embodied the benefits of exercise and a prudent diet proved once again that no matter how virtuously we live, none of us is getting out of here alive. The mortality rate is the same as it's always been: 100 percent.
If anybody could have defied those odds, it was LaLanne, who transformed his body, personality, and life through the magic of resistance exercise. He then used his transformation to inspire and empower millions of others, especially women, the elderly, and the disabled.
He exemplified the principle that the purpose of health and fitness is not to add more years to your life but to add more life to your years. "Billy Graham was for the hereafter. I'm for the here and now," he once declared. He was to fitness what God is to religion.
Who can forget the feats with which he celebrated his birthdays? At age 40, he swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge - underwater (and carrying two air tanks). At 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, towing a 1,000-pound boat - handcuffed and shackled. At 70, he dove into Long Beach Harbor and pulled 70 boats with 70 people a mile and a half, again handcuffed and shackled.
In the end, LaLanne lived not only well but long. He was 96 when he drew his last breath. He died of respiratory failure from pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay, Calif.
That same day an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine that would have pleased LaLanne; in a way, it vindicated his life's work. Neuroscientists are finding evidence that resistance exercise builds not only brawn but brains, the story reported. Studies show that it increases gene activity and the creation of new brain cells and, by implication, cognitive function (thinking, memory, etc.). In other words, lifting weights may make you smarter (so be careful who you call "musclehead"!) or at least retard the slide to senility.
Nearly 11 years ago, I met LaLanne when he came to Philadelphia to promote a computer program designed to determine one's "fitness age" (as opposed to chronological age). It was a memorable experience for several reasons, foremost being the directive LaLanne gave me shortly after we met.
"Feel my butt!" he commanded.
Since I've extended the same courtesy to various bodybuilding babes, I happily obliged.
Not surprising, he had buns of steel.
Moments before, I'd asked LaLanne to lift his shirt and show me his abs. He replied by inviting me to slug him in the belly. I did, and it was like hitting a frozen side of beef.
I thought I'd thrown a pretty solid punch, but he ordered me to pound him again, harder. I complied. He didn't flinch.
At the time, he was 85. At 5-foot-6, he weighed 150 pounds. His pulse rate was 52; his body fat, 17 percent. He was free of injury and disease. And his fitness age (calculated by measuring strength, flexibility, body fat, and the condition of the heart and lungs)? Twenty-nine!
A shameless flirt, he oozed Gallic charm (his real first name: Francois) and he kissed all the ladies on the hand. As I wrote back then: "If they could bottle the source of his pep and vigor, it would outsell Viagra."
"Is he still a stud?" I asked his wife, Elaine. "You bet," she said.
After rising at 5:30, he had pumped iron for an hour, swum for an hour, and downed his customary breakfast high-protein drink.
As a kid, he was puny and pimply, a troublemaker with a sour disposition and blinding headaches. When he was 15, he attended a lecture and heard a popular physioculturist promise: "If you obey natural law, you can be born again." Inspired, LaLanne quit eating junk and began heaving iron.
"Exercise is the king, nutrition is the queen," LaLanne told me. "If you put them together, you've got a kingdom."
At the time, he was exercising seven days a week, changing his routine every month. He didn't eat meat, white flour, or sugar. He got most of his protein from egg whites, and every day he tried to eat 10 raw vegetables and several pieces of fresh fruit.
He was such a quote machine my wrist grew sore from recording all his sage and amusing nuggets:
"Don't exceed the feed limit. If man makes it, don't eat it."
"Your health account is like a bank account; the more you put in, the more you can take out."
"If you don't work out regularly, it's like going to bed with a rattlesnake."
"Exercise is like sex; you can never overdo it."
"Any stupid donkey can die; it takes guts to live."