The poster boy for vitality pioneered exercise TV shows and modern health clubs

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated January 23, 2011 11:40 PM
George Rose/Getty

The godfather of physical fitness, Jack LaLanne, died at his coastal California home in Morro Bay from respiratory failure due to pneumonia. He was 96.

“He was surrounded by his family and passed very peacefully and in no distress … and with the football game on Sunday, so everything was normal,” his daughter Yvonne LaLanne, 66, told Reuters.

Only two years ago, LaLanne, still a poster boy for vitality, told PEOPLE that young stars such as Britney Spears – who was going through physical and emotional problems at the time – needed to “develop pride and discipline” and watch what they put into their bodies, or as he put it: “the right fuel in the machine.”

As for keeping body and soul together, “It’s got to start with young kids,” LaLanne told PEOPLE.

LaLanne, who stood only 5’6″, didn’t start watching how he lived until he was 15. Born Francois Henri LaLanne in San Francisco (his parents were French immigrants), he felt the effects of sugar and bleached flour in his diet. After hearing a health lecture, he devoted his life to following a diet of raw, unprocessed foods. His staples: two meals a day and no snacks.

And did he ever exercise, relentlessly. At age 60, noted The New York Times, he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman s Wharf while pulling a 1,000-pound boat – and while handcuffed. At 70, shackled again, he pulled 70 people in 70 boats 1 miles through Long Beach Harbor.

As he liked to say, “I can’t die. It would ruin my image.”

LaLanne opened the nation’s first modern health club in California’s Oakland, in 1936, and it featured exercise equipment, a juice bar and health food store. Eventually this developed into a 100-strong Jack LaLanne gym chain across the country. He would also market a highly successful juicer.

His syndicated The Jack LaLanne Show, which opened with his performing jumping jacks under the credits in his signature belted jumpsuits, debuted in daytime in 1959 and ran for 34 years, solidifying his reputation. After more than 3,000 shows, LaLanne, who owned all rights, repackaged the program and leased it to ESPN Classic.

Besides his daughter, Yvonne, he is survived by a son, Dan Doyle; his wife, Elaine; and their son, Jon.