Think You Could Do Fingertip Pushups At 89?

Granddaddy of fitness Jack LaLanne is flexing for a whole new audience

Before the StairMaster, Body by Jake, Power Bars, Dr. Atkins, and a health club on every corner, there was Jack LaLanne. In the 1950s and '60s, LaLanne's daily physical fitness program was must-see TV for millions of housewives fighting flab. Well, love handles are still with us, and so, it turns out, is the indefatigable LaLanne.

At 89 (he'll be 90 in September), the king of pushups is mounting an unlikely comeback. LaLanne's national TV show, which ran from 1953 to 1985, is gaining new exposure on ESPN Classic. The nostalgia network has been running the black-and-white, half-hour sweatfests daily since October. It added a second airing on weekdays in March. "We thought this would be a great idea, given that there is such a cult following for Jack," says Crowley Sullivan, head of programming and acquisitions at ESPN Classic, who acquired the rights to the shows from LaLanne.

Then there's LaLanne's thriving biz as a motivational speaker. For a two-hour talk, which often includes leading the audience in exercises, companies and senior groups pay $15,000. He accepts about one date a month. The biggest payday these days, though, is the $150 Jack LaLanne Power Juicer, the vegan's answer to the George Foreman grill. On infomercials and the Home Shopping Network, LaLanne and Elaine, his wife of 45 years, pitch the appliance that serves up vegetable and fruit elixirs. The manufacturer, Fairfield (N.J.)-based Tristar Products Inc., says the juicer, which launched in January, 2002, just passed a million in sales. Says Jack: "We've never had so much money."

LaLanne has been less visible in recent years, but he stayed in the fitness biz. When his show went off the air, he yakked about health on talk shows. The Jack LaLanne Health Spa chain was sold to Bally Entertainment Corp., and Jack still gets a monthly check as part of a noncompete deal. But today the LaLanne brand is brimming with life. Jack says his fitness message resonates with fans because they trust the messenger: "I've always told the truth and practiced what I preached. And everything I preached has come to pass. Isn't nutrition everything? Isn't exercise king today?"

TUNE IN, TONE UP. That sure wasn't the case when LaLanne got his start in a gym he opened in Oakland, Calif., in 1936. He had to scuffle for customers to lift weights and eat at the snack bar that served peanut butter and honey sandwiches. But a Bay Area yogurt company in 1951 sponsored the first LaLanne TV show, which aired locally in San Francisco. Two years later the program made its national debut, drawing mostly stay-home moms who tuned in to tone up. A broomstick, towel, and hardback chair were the only props.

These days, LaLanne still talks the talk and touches the toes. The LaLanne home in Morro Bay, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is equipped with a gym and outdoor pool. He exercises two hours each morning, starting at 5 a.m. "You don't see him slowing down much," says stepson Dan Doyle LaLanne.

In or out of the gym, Jack likes to travel in style. He recently splurged on a sporty Mercedes convertible. And the LaLannes dine out every night, with Jack bringing the brown rice and homemade soup. It's more than a way of life -- it's a business strategy. "I can't afford to die," he says. "It'll ruin my image." Right, Jack. Now pass the bean sprouts.

By Mark Hyman

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