Jack LaLanne changed exercising, but he didn't change many bodies

Jack LaLanne

Story by Alan Bavley and Eric Adler
(McClatchy Newspapers)
Sat, Feb 19, 2011
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At age 63, firm and fit, Diane Bashor personifies the best of Jack LaLanne's legacy. Now if only the rest of America would do likewise.

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

Bashor remembers how, as a young mom with two children, she used to click on her black-and-white television to join the legendary LaLanne, who died last month at 96, in jumping jacks, squats, push-ups and all manner of calisthenics.

In many ways, she has yet to stop, crediting LaLanne and his subsequent calisthenics clones — from Jane Fonda and Cher to Richard Simmons and Tony Horton — with helping build not only bodies but also 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 television in his form-fitting jumpsuit, the America he hoped to transform is flabbier now than ever.

"He was a tremendous inspiration to the exercise professional. He was a pioneer and a leader," said Len Kravitz, coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

But "we're fatter," he said.

In the past decade or so, as obesity rates peaked, the only extra exercise we seemed to be getting 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 were getting regular leisure-time activity, basically the same as the 29.5 percent who did back in 1998.

And what we tell government poll takers doesn't necessarily turn out to be what we actually do.

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

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

"What I've seen is 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 very quickly when they begin exercising, Schmidt said.

"Sometimes people jump in too hard, they get sore muscles, they injure themselves," she said.

And a typical half hour on a treadmill doesn't burn nearly as many calories as many people expect.

"One hundred fifty calories? That's three Oreos," Schmidt said.

Even so, we remain hopeful.

More than 45 million of us had health club memberships in 2009, up an amazing 162 percent from the late 1980s.

But new club memberships historically peak in January with New Year's resolutions and decline into July, when it becomes clear there's no longer enough time left to shape up for the beach.

And what kind of beach look are we looking for?

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

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

In the early 1960s, as LaLanne was becoming the nation's exercise coach, some 13 percent of American weighed in as obese. That number has grown to 34 percent today.

Instead of exercising to build bulging muscles, now we're often satisfied just to trim the excess bulges.

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 just too easy to put on the pounds — and too difficult to take them off.

"We can do everything right now without having to do anything physical," Kravitz said. "With computers, we don't even have to walk to each other's desks. ... Sedentary jobs pay better."

Susan Yager, an adjunct professor at New York University and author of "The Hundred Year Diet: America's Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight," also blames the rise of fast and cheap foods, laden with salt, fats and corn syrup.

"If people would just cut out sugary sodas, we could start cutting down on obesity with that alone," she said.

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

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

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

Exercise builds strength, sharpens the mind, keeps down cholesterol levels, 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 Jack LaLanne had his whole, long life.

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