'Godfather of Fitness' Jack Lalanne's legacy

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

media captionJack LaLanne demonstrates his famous fingertip push-ups

Jack LaLanne, the man credited with popularising fitness in America, died on Sunday aged 96. For decades he hosted a television workout show and opened America's first health clubs inspiring a generation of exercise enthusiasts.

If you've ever joined a gym, used a weight machine or owned an exercise video, then it's Jack LaLanne you should thank, or blame.

image captionJack LaLanne hosted America's first national TV exercise show, alongside his wife

His efforts to get Americans healthy and fit will live well beyond his 96 years.

Mr LaLanne, who died from respiratory failure due to pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay in California, was a fitness fanatic who encouraged millions of others to follow his lead.

Heavy weights

He was a "pioneer" who brought health clubs and gyms to the masses, says Philip Haberstro from the National Association for Health and Fitness.

Jack LaLanne opened his first health studio in 1936 in Oakland, California. Up until then, says Mr Haberstro, gyms were the preserve of bodybuilders, weightlifters and the military.

Mr LaLanne placed an emphasis on using weights to work out, inventing the first leg extension machine, pulley machine using cables, and the first weight selectors - versions of which are still seen in modern day gyms and health clubs.

Writing on his website, LaLanne recalled the resistance he met from people at the time.

"The doctors were against me - they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive. Women would look like men and even varsity coaches predicted that their athletes would get muscle-bound and banned them from lifting weights."

The Motivator

Despite the initial scepticism Jack LaLanne expanded the number of health clubs he ran, inviting women to them and encouraging the elderly and disabled to exercise.

By the 1990s there were more than 200 Jack LaLanne health clubs in the United States, which now operate under the name Bally Total Fitness.

But it wasn't just health clubs that LaLanne used to encourage exercise. In 1951 he started presenting his own television workout programme, "The Jack LaLanne Show", which ran until 1985 and urged viewers to get off the sofa and do sit-ups.

Starring alongside his wife he showed people how to stay fit in their living room, demonstrating exercises such as the "Posture Improver" where you pretended to try and crack a walnut between your buttocks, overhead kicks and leg scissors, as well as as using props such as brooms and chairs to create a home gymnasium.

Jack LaLanne's show was the first national keep-fit show to be aired in the United States, and laid the path for other TV exercise experts such as Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons and The Green Goddess.

Ms Fonda paid tribute to Mr LaLanne on her twitter feed: "He began American's fitness movement with his iconic TV show, great body, one piece jump suit and friendly, motivating manner. A great man!"

Exercise inspiration

His exercises also provided inspiration to British TV workout star Derrick Evans, who is better known as Mr Motivator.

"He was living proof that exercise is good for you," says Mr Motivator. "With him it was all about making it part of your lifestyle, not just for the moment," he added.

media captionJack LaLanne says the facial exercises are ''a beauty treatment''

Mr Motivator, who is currently developing an exercise programme for children now he is no longer on-screen, believes the kind of television workouts that LaLanne inspired are one of the best ways to encourage fitness.

"Everybody needs little bits of activity beaming into their front room just so they can do 30 minutes of exercise.

"We know people can't find the time to workout, but if we give them small amounts on TV then we're being responsible," he adds.

It is not just a generation of television fitness experts which LaLanne has created but also a subsequent craze for celebrity exercise videos. Stars from Davina McCall to Coleen Nolan, Carmen Electra to Heidi Klum have all donned sweatbands and leg warmers to emulate LaLanne's original concept to mixed success.

What made Jack LaLanne so successful was his ability to turn fitness into a business, argues Paul Zane Pilzer, an economist who has written three books on health and wellness.

In the US there are now 23,000 fitness clubs with around 43 million members, says Mr Pilzer who believes 90% of those can be attributed to the influence Jack LaLanne has had on fitness.

The interest and passion Americans have for keeping fit has become a lucrative industry which Mr Pilzer values at between $50bn to $100bn.

image captionJack LaLanne brought health clubs to the masses

"He didn't just say it was about exercise but was also strong on nutrition and diet," adds Mr Pilzer, "but today the diet industry is almost separate from the fitness industry."

Jack LaLanne's interest and expertise in nutrition combined with his business acumen saw him launch a range of healthy eating products, including the first nutrition snack bar, and the first weight loss instant breakfast meal replacement drink. He also encouraged people to make their own fresh drinks with the launch of a juicer range.

But most importantly, says Carolyn Katzin a nutritionist who was friends with Mr LaLanne, he did it all the natural way.

"He wasn't in to the steroids and the chemicals and all of that," she says.

"He would get a can of soup and use it to do sit ups on the floor. He had the sense that you could exercise anywhere.

"He was an everyman, and I guess his legacy was to tell people that anyone could get fit. And he always did it with a smile on his face."