At 97, the first lady of fitness is still shaping the industry
Twenty minutes a day gets me on my way,” she said at her home on the Central Coast of California. But her biggest daily feat of strength.
NEW YORK: Elaine LaLanne’s morning exercises often begin before she’s even out of bed. Lying on top of the covers, she does two-dozen jackknifes.
At the bathroom sink, she does incline push-ups. After she dresses and applies her makeup, she heads to her home gym, where she walks uphill on a treadmill for a few minutes and does lat makeup, on a machine.
“Twenty minutes a day gets me on my way,” she said at her home on the Central Coast of California. But her biggest daily feat of strength, she says, happens above her shoulders.
At 97 years old, LaLanne reminds herself each morning, “You have to believe you can.” She said belief had not only kept her physically active through injuries and emotional obstacles, it had also helped her to live the life of someone decades younger. “Everything starts in the mind,” she said.
LaLanne’s habit of speaking in aphorisms (“It’s not a problem, it’s an experience”; “You do the best you can with the equipment you have”) is a product of a lifetime of trying to inspire people to move more and better themselves.
For nearly six decades, she was both wife and business partner to the television personality Jack LaLanne, who is widely considered the father of the modern fitness movement, and whose exercise show ran for 34 years, from 1951 to 1985.
“She was the guiding force behind Jack,” said Rick Hersh, LaLanne’s talent agent for over 40 years.
While Jack was a natural showman — he rose to fame performing acrobatics on Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach in the 1930s — Elaine preferred to work behind the scenes, supporting him and managing their sprawling entertainment and entrepreneurial empire,
which included not only a TV show but dozens of fitness gadgets, food products and supplements, as well as a gym chain with more than 100 locations nationwide. Since Jack’s death in 2011, however, Elaine (whom friends call LaLa) has quietly cultivated a following all her own. She still runs her family’s remaining business, BeFit Enterprises.
She has published two books in the last four years and is developing both a documentary and a feature film with Mark Wahlberg, who has signed on to play Jack. And longtime fitness industry power players — the 1990s home workout queen Denise Austin, the Tae Bo guru Billy Blanks, the bodybuilding legend Lou Ferrigno — seek her counsel on navigating life and business.
“She’s almost like a second mom to me,” Ferrigno said. With her ever-present smile and her fondness for catchphrases, LaLanne’s positivity could easily be mistaken for naïveté.
But her sunny outlook is hard won, most profoundly as a result of May 24, 1973, when her 21-year-old daughter from her first marriage, Janet, died in a car accident.
The night she learned her child had been killed, she said, she was faced with a choice: Fall apart or push through. She thought to herself, “Janet, if she can see you up there, she would never want to see me cry,” LaLanne said, choosing her words carefully.
“I mean, I can’t — she’s gone, I can’t do anything about it. Can’t bring her back.” The woman who had preached the gospel of changing your life knew this was one thing she could never change.
She managed her grief the way she approached everything else — by hurling forward, she said, and by training her brain, like a muscle, to focus not on her loss but on the joy her daughter had brought her when she was alive. ‘If you don’t move, you become immovable.’