Health & Medicine

Despite Jack LaLanne's successes, we're flabbier than ever

In 1990, at age 75, fitness guru Jack LaLanne, with his wife, Elaine, demonstrated his strength and flexibility at their home in Morro Bay, Calif.
In 1990, at age 75, fitness guru Jack LaLanne, with his wife, Elaine, demonstrated his strength and flexibility at their home in Morro Bay, Calif. AP

At age 63, Diane Bashor personifies the best of Jack LaLanne's legacy. If only the rest of America would do likewise.

LaLanne died Jan. 23 at age 96, but he remained active and vital into his 90s.

"I work out six or seven days a week," Bashor said after a heart-pounding body-shaping class at Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park, Kan.

Bashor said that, as a young mom with two children, she used to turn on her black-and-white TV to join LaLanne in jumping jacks, squats, push-ups and all manner of calisthenics.

She credits LaLanne and his calisthenics clones — from Jane Fonda and Cher to Richard Simmons and Tony Horton — with helping build not only bodies but a multibillion-dollar fitness culture. Consider the countless exercise products sold on late-night TV and the gyms, health clubs and community centers that now span the country.

"I think it all started with Jack LaLanne," Bashor said.

Yet a half-century after LaLanne first went on national TV in his form-fitting jumpsuit, the America he hoped to transform is flabbier than ever.

In the early 1960s, when LaLanne was the nation's exercise coach, 13 percent of Americans were obese. Today, it's 34 percent.

In the past decade or so, the only extra exercise we seemed to get came from wringing our hands about our expanding waistlines.

In 2007, 30.8 percent of adults told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they got regular leisure-time activity, virtually the same as the 29.5 percent who did back in 1998.

And what we tell government poll-takers isn't necessarily what we really do.

When researchers had people wear gadgets called accelerometers to measure their activity, they found that fewer than 5 percent of adults got 30 minutes of moderate to intense exercise at least five days a week.

Real fitness buffs are a tiny minority: About 1 percent of adults average more than two hours a day of moderate to vigorous activity. An additional 1.8 percent of us are "weekend warriors," getting some moderate exercise during the work week and a more intense burst on Saturday or Sunday.

"There's the potential to overestimate your exercise and underestimate your food intake," said Jan Schmidt, an exercise physiologist and director of the Kirmayer Fitness Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Gym neophytes can become discouraged when they begin exercising, Schmidt said: "Sometimes people jump in too hard, they get sore muscles, they injure themselves."

And a typical half-hour on a treadmill doesn't burn nearly as many calories as many people expect, she said: "One hundred fifty calories? That's three Oreos."

Even so, we remain hopeful. More than 45 million of us had health club memberships in 2009, up 162 percent from the late 1980s.

But new club memberships historically peak in January and decline into July, when there's no longer time left to shape up for the beach.

And what kind of beach look are we looking for?

In the 1940s, LaLanne contemporary Charles Atlas promoted his isometric exercises to the 97-pound weaklings who got sand kicked in their faces by brawny he-men. Putting on athletic weight was the goal.

But early Atlas ads — "Hey Skinny ... yer ribs are showing!" — are reminders of just how many overweight and obese Americans can't show their ribs today.

But there are questions about how effective the exercises offered by LaLanne and his peers can ever be for people whose main goal is losing weight.

Modern society makes it too easy to put on the pounds — and too difficult to take them off.

It takes extreme amounts of exercise to burn off large amounts of weight, Schmidt said.

"You've got to do it on a consistent basis," she said. "It's a lifetime commitment."

But even if a workout won't magically melt fat away, it's worth the effort, Schmidt said.

Exercise builds strength, sharpens the mind, lowers cholesterol, wards off depression and makes it easier to get a good night's sleep.

"I compare exercise to charging a car battery," Schmidt said. "You start up the engine, you get energy."

And that's something LaLanne had his whole, long life.

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