Jack LaLanne — Physical Genius

When we think of genius, for the most part we think in terms of mental
or intellectual power. We think of brilliant human beings. We think of mathematicians
or inventors or writers. Painters and sculptors may be in a slightly different
category — a little more physical and intuitive — but even here, we still
don’t think of artistic gifts as a physical skill. It’s the quality of the mind
and heart that manifests as paint on canvas.

In light of this, let’s look at physical genius — the genius that expresses
itself through physical action, whether it’s running or swimming or hitting a
ball or, perhaps, even hitting another person. By the time we’re done, I think
you’ll have an appreciation of what physical genius really is — how you can
connect with it in your own life — and how the person I’ve chosen as our model
in this session can help you do that.

He once did 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes — an average of 44 pushups every 60

He towed 70 boats at once, carrying 70 people each from the Queen’s Way Bridge
in Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary ocean liner, which was anchored a mile
and a half away — and he was handcuffed and shackled while he did it. This was
to celebrate his 70th birthday.

He also has made the supposedly impossible swim from Alcatraz Island to
Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco. He not only made it, but once again he was
handcuffed and shackled when he did it. Just to make it more interesting, he
was towing a 1,000-pound boat.

Jack LaLanne did not start out as a genius of physical fitness. Into his
teenage years, he was a sugar addict and junk food junkie. In an interview, he
explained what this meant. “It made me weak and it made me mean,” he
said. “It also made me sick. I was nearsighted, and I had terrible skin

He was 15 years old when he attended a talk by a nutritionist in his hometown
of Oakland, California. This was a turning point in his life — and at that
moment, he decided to totally recreate himself. He began lifting weights at the
local YMCA, and he made changes in what he ate and drank. He also read
everything he could find on anatomy, nutrition, and health. Very quickly, Jack
developed the lean, muscular body of an athlete — and a thorough knowledge of
physical fitness to go with it. But rather than keep all this to himself, he
was determined to share it with the world. He began to develop approaches to
physical fitness and nutrition that were both highly effective and
scientifically sound. Many, if not most, of the exercise devices in today’s
health clubs were first thought of by Jack LaLanne. As he said, there are 640
muscles in the human body, and he wanted to have a specific exercise for each
of them. So he invented the tools that could do that.

Since then, Jack LaLanne has done many amazing things. But none of them are
more amazing than the way he invented an entire industry. In 1936, he opened
the nation’s first health and fitness center, on the third floor of an office
building in Oakland. He was 21 years old — and he knew more about the workings
of the human body than most doctors. Even so, many people viewed him with
suspicion. Weightlifting, for example, which LaLanne has always advocated, was
believed to cause heart attacks. Incredible as it seems, even coaches
discouraged weight training by athletes, which was supposed to make them
“muscle bound.”

Over the years, LaLanne’s message began to be heard. In the 1950s he began to appear
on television as an advocate and motivator for fitness and health. The message
was simple but compelling: Everyone should engage in physical exercise every
day — and everyone can do that, including the elderly and the infirm. Even in
2004, approaching his ninth decade, LaLanne practices what he preaches. He took
up golf at the age of 50, and shot his age four times when he was 73 and five
times when he was 74. He still describes his daily workout as the top priority
in his life, and he’s still coming up with new ideas and exercise programs.

When an interviewer asked about the differences between today and when he was
first starting out, LaLanne replied, “It’s gratifying to see that
everything I was preaching and advocating 50 years ago is being accepted. Back
then I was a crackpot. Today I am an authority. And believe me, I can’t die. It
would ruin my image!”

If this has sounded a bit like an infomercial for Jack LaLanne, don’t let that
distract you from the facts of what LaLanne accomplished. He wanted to bring
knowledge and experience of physical fitness to everybody — and he did it.
Today there are many others in the field that he pioneered, but Jack La Lane
was one of the very first. And his message was simple: you can become healthier
and stronger, starting right now, no matter how unlikely that may seem. Just as
importantly, he himself exemplified exactly what that meant.

In this sense, Jack LaLanne models what I mean by physical genius better than
many professional athletes and Olympians. The fact is I could train as long and
hard as I want, and I’ll never play in the NFL or run in the Olympics. But I
can do what Jack LaLanne teaches. I can exercise every day and pay attention to
what I eat and drink. You can do this also. And when you do, the genius who is
your model — whether you realize it or not — is none other than Jack LaLanne.