Jack LaLanne: physically — and fiscally– fit at 93

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He’s known as the father of modern fitness, but Jack LaLanne is also a natural businessman.

In the 1930s he opened the country’s first comprehensive health club in Oakland, Calif., and in 1951 launched television’s pioneering all-exercise program, “The Jack LaLanne Show.” When no sponsors signed on, the exercise guru created his own product, the now famous instant breakfast nutrition drink.

Today, at age 93 and living in Morro Bay, Calif., he’s still at it, with an Internet radio show (“Jack LaLanne Live”) and commercials for juicers that run throughout the world. Though it’s all made him wealthy — by the 1980s, he had more than 200 health clubs, which he later sold to Bally — he insists he’s more interested in helping people than making money.

Bankrate caught up with LaLanne, who co-authored (with Matthew J. Rettick): “Fiscal Fitness: 8 Steps to Wealth & Health,” out in March.

Jack LaLanne
He’s known as the father of modern fitness, but Jack LaLanne is also a natural businessman.

Bankrate: According to your book, you strongly believe that physical and financial fitness must go hand in hand. Why?

LaLanne: You’ve got to keep your health account and your bank account together. If you’re a multi-millionaire, and you don’t have your health, what good is anything?

Bankrate: If you aren’t strong financially, what happens to you physically?

LaLanne: You’re going to worry about it. A lot of people are multimillionaires by the time they’re 40 or 50 years old, but they get arthritis and rheumatism, they’re fat, and their sex life is gone. Can you make love to your money? You’ve got to exercise at least three times a week for the rest of your life. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not something you’re going to do three or four years. I’m 93, and I still work out two hours every day. And I watch my diet very closely. I’m 5 feet 7? inches and I weigh 150 pounds. My chest is 46 (inches) and my waist is 28 (inches). My neck is 17 (inches).

Bankrate: What do you eat?

LaLanne: If man makes it, I don’t eat it. Even these diet soft drinks. They’re just something to sell. They’ve got artificial coloring and flavoring, man-made, right? Keep away from that! Drink water! I don’t put anything artificial in my body. And I take 25 or 30 supplements every day, everything from (vitamin) A to Z(inc), but they’re all from natural sources. Stick to Mother Nature. And if it tastes good, spit it out, or you’re going to be fat. Do you know how many calories some of these (fast food) hamburgers have? Over 2,000 (calories)! If you’re going to lose weight, you have to keep to 1,500 calories or less.

Bankrate: Talk to me about the changes in your body when you’re stressed about your finances.

LaLanne: You wonder why these people get to 40 or 50 years old and have heart attacks and get a lot of terrible diseases. Life is an athletic event. You’ve got to work at living! Dying is easy! Living is a pain in the butt. You’ve got to train, you’ve got to exercise, you’ve got to eat right, and you have to have goals and challenges. After you exercise, you feel good about yourself, and you don’t worry about all your problems. I don’t care who you are — you go through life and you’re going to have problems. And who’s going to fix those problems? You!

Bankrate: How do you do that?

LaLanne: You have to eat correctly. Exercise is king, nutrition is queen, and you put them together and you’ve got a kingdom. The most important thing is exercise. You can exercise vigorously and eat a lot of junk and get by, but you can’t just eat perfect food and not exercise. You combine exercise with good eating, and you’re going to have a beautiful, healthy body.

Bankrate: What do you say to middle-aged or even older people who say, “I’m too old to exercise now.”

LaLanne: Too old? Look, my dad died at 50. He wouldn’t listen to me. I wanted him to exercise, wanted him to eat right. What the hell can you tell your dad? He said, “Oh, I’m too old for that stuff.” And here he dies at 50 from a heart attack. If he’d listened to me, he probably would have lived to a ripe old age. They’ve done over 15 different tests now with people in their 80s and 90s, and they put them on a weight training program, and they’ve doubled their strength and endurance in six to eight weeks. You’re never too old.

Bankrate: Even if you’re 83 with a tortuous spine?

LaLanne: Those are the people who should really do stretching. They should get a bar at a sporting good store — a bar you put in your doorway. There are a few things you can’t do, maybe, but many, many things you can do. You’re the judge. You’ve got to know what you can do and what you can’t do. I just fell down the other day. I was carrying a big pile of books from my upstairs loft, and I couldn’t see one of the steps and I missed it. I fell down the stairs and rolled, rolled, rolled, and I wrecked my back. But I’m still working out. And in about two weeks, it’ll all be gone. I worked out today over an hour.

Bankrate: What’s your usual workout regimen?

LaLanne: I work out with the weights an hour and a half, another half hour in the pool. And I change my exercise every 30 days. You’ve got to change it up every month.

Bankrate: Your book says that if you are 55 today and you live to be 90, you’ll need $210,000 by age 65 just to pay the insurance to supplement Medicare and medical expenses.

LaLanne: Right.

Bankrate: The average person can’t do that.

LaLanne: Well, you’ve got to do the best you can. There are a lot of people in the country who don’t have insurance, but those are the people who should do more for themselves. Too many people depend on Medicare. You are the one that makes things happen. Start eating better, normalize your weight and exercise. Get something you enjoy or haven’t done and do it. You’ve got to keep busy so you won’t need long-term care.

Bankrate: One of the biggest fears of the baby boomers is that they’ll outlive their money.

LaLanne: Everybody worries about all this stuff. Think about how fortunate you are, and if you’ve got problems, do something about them. Even if you’re a baby boomer, get a job and work! You can work until you’re 80 or 90 years old. But too many people want to depend on their insurance and retire. Retirement — that’s a death knell.

Bankrate: When you were a child, you were addicted to sugar and junk food. You were also very troubled.

LaLanne: I had a hell of a life. It was like hell on earth. Every day I’d have these blinding headaches, and I would throw up and then eat more cakes and pies and candy. My mother got me in the habit of eating this stuff. I was an irritable kid, so if I’d start crying, my mother would give me some ice cream or cake, and I became addicted to it. Do you know how many people are addicted to sugar? Worse than alcoholics! They’ve got to have their sugar.

Bankrate: What does sugar do to you?

LaLanne: It takes away all the vitamin B. And there are so many other minerals that it destroys. So I was prone to rages as a child. I tried to commit suicide, and I tried to set our house on fire. I chased my brother with an ax. He used to make fun of me and give me a bad time. And I had an uncontrollable temper because of all this sugar. Then at 15 years old, I attended a health lecture. And within two weeks, my whole life changed. I was born again. I started eating more fruits and vegetables and quit all sugar, all unnatural foods. And I started exercising at the YMCA in Berkeley, Calif. I had to. I’d have been dead.

Bankrate: This was during the Depression, when not many people were thinking of such things. How did you get on to the notion of bodybuilding?

LaLanne: I was this little skinny kid, and kids used to make fun of me. I wanted to have a good body, so I wanted to lift weights. I went down to the foundry and I got some weights made, and I started a little gym in my backyard. Then I got the Berkeley policeman and firemen who couldn’t pass the physical to start exercising. And within two months, every one of them passed the physical. That got me so excited, boy. I said, “Man, I can help people! I can change their life!” So I opened my first big health spa in 1936 in downtown Oakland, Calif.

Bankrate: Did people think you were nuts?

LaLanne: Are you kidding? People said, “Jack LaLanne, that guy has women working out with the weights. He’s got athletes working out with the weights. He’s got old people working out with the weights. The women will get muscle-bound. The old people will have heart attacks. The athletes won’t be able to train. They won’t be able to lift their arms, because the muscles will get in the way.” You can’t believe what I went through. And today, there’s not one world-class athlete, man or woman, not working out with the weights.

Bankrate: You invented the Smith machine for weight training.

LaLanne: Yeah. It’s a machine where you do squats. The weight is controlled by two bars that slide up and down, so older people can’t lose their balance. It keeps them on track so they can do squats and work their legs. It was the first weight selector. But I never got anything patented.

Bankrate: Why not?

LaLanne: I was trying to pay my rent. I was paying $45 a month in downtown Oakland. Everybody was making fun of me. So I thought, “People aren’t coming to me, so I’ll go to them.” I went to the biggest high school in the Bay Area at noon. I wore a tight T-shirt, and all the kids came around, yelling, “Jack, have this hamburger! Have this doughnut!” They knew I didn’t eat all that junk. I picked out the fattest kid I could find and the skinniest kid I could find. I got their names and phone numbers and addresses, and then I went to their homes at night. If you were a dad and had a kid that was about 60 pounds underweight, and a guy came along and said, “I’ll put 40 or 50 pounds of muscle on that kid in three or four months or double your money back,” would you sign up? Sure! I did the same with the fat kid. I took 110 pounds off of one kid in 10 months. And word got around. I had so many students I had to cut the membership down. Then after about a year, I started getting calls from the adults. Even the girls were coming to me. It changed my whole life.

Bankrate: You appeared in an episode of “The Simpsons.”

LaLanne: Yes, Homer was out in the ocean drowning in a boat, and I went to save him. I tied a line on the bow of the boat, and I started swimming, and I pulled the bow of the boat off and the thing sank.

Bankrate: This was a spoof on your own Herculean stunts. You really have towed boats full of people before.

LaLanne: On my 70th birthday, I towed 70 boats with 70 people a mile and a half from Long Beach Harbor. I did all the movements with my feet and my arms, and my feet and hands were tied. Now that was tough. I had to train for months and months.

Bankrate: How did you do it?

LaLanne: Willpower. And I was in shape. I had endurance and strength. On one of my birthdays I did a thousand chins and a thousand push-ups. My next birthday, I’m going to tow my wife across the bathtub.