Friday, September 23, 2011

Jack LaLanne, Mother's Little Helper

I just followed along with the first episode of "The Jack LaLanne Show" from 1959, (which you can watch on YouTube or at, and though I'm not sweating, I'm smiling. I'm also thinking about high-fructose corn syrup.

I'll explain that later. First, the good stuff:

LaLanne, founder of Trimnastics and the "Godfather of Fitness," was an impeccably-torsoed he-man everyman who invited himself into American living rooms and basically invented workout videos. For this, World of Sass owes him a great deal.

A bodybuilder and nutritionist at a time when "feeling the burn" meant "social disease," LaLanne was aware he was pushing a new concept. So he structured his half-hour TV broadcast with "Trimnastic" exercises the average housewife could do in her living room -- or while sitting down with a cigarette and a cocktail in hand -- interspersed with 1- to 2-minute-long morsels of wisdom, encouragement and self-promotion.

He was smart, this Jack LaLanne. (I'd like to start calling him Trimnasty, because was just that balling.)  Trimnasty often starts out episodes by addressing the children inevitably left in front of the television set, asking the boys and girls to go get their mothers and "tell her that Jack LaLanne is waiting!" Sometimes, as a reward for doing his bidding, he shows them how he can "blow up" his muscle.

This guy is chock full o' plainspoken corniness like that. He wears a silhouette-hugging, waist-cinched jumpsuit and black ballet slippers. As he goes into an exercise, you know it's time to follow along by the jolly live organ accompaniment playing "Daisy Bell" or "That's Amore." When LaLanne tells the audience to take a deep breath, the organ gives a big wheeze to join in the exhale.

Seeing as at-home fitness as we know it was still in its infancy in the '50s, it makes sense that the program comes across to a modern audience almost as a kids' show. However, though the calorie-burning aspect of LaLanne's routines are mild by today's standards, they're full of classic moves you just can't argue with, many of them taken from ballet and basic calisthenics. Stationary leg and knee raises, relévés, hamstring curls and pedal kicks haven't gone anywhere; it's just the intensity and the soundtrack that's changed.

My absolute favorite part of the workouts are the facial exercises, something you never see now that Botox and chemical peels are around. I have no idea whether they deliver on LaLanne's promise to give you a "natural facelift," but OMG are they fun. Check it:

Facial workouts may have gone by the wayside, but LaLanne's friendly guru approach has become the norm. His refrain of, "I'm gonna come into your living room every day, Monday through Friday," says both "I'm here for you," and "I'm not going anywhere, so you may as well get on board." (He certainly made good on that, as "The Jack LaLanne Show" ran for over 30 years, and if you listen to this wonderful NPR interview from 2004, he sounds as ferociously chipper as ever at age 90.)

What's crazy to me is that LaLanne's 30-minute, chatty, barely-break-a-sweat show was the vanguard of mainstream fitness at a time when lard, red meat, potatoes and Jell-O were America's main food groups -- when sushi and tofu did not exist in American grocery stores.

Which brings me to high-fructose corn syrup.

As I imagined all those housewives taking a break from their gimlets and meatloaf preparation to do some Trimnastics, I thought, "How is it that America didn't already have an obesity epidemic at the time this show was on? Oh yeah. High-fructose corn syrup."

If you've read Michael Pollan or "Fast Food Nation" or the best book about the connection between food cravings and food science, you've gotten the message that high-fructose corn syrup is to the human body what Hexxus is to Ferngully. (Holla if you hear me on that one.)

Why? Well, HFCS's chemically-engineered molecular structure causes it to be absorbed more easily into the bloodstream than naturally-occurring sugar, resulting in greater insulin spikes (hello Type II Diabetes), liver damage and all-around havoc on one's metabolism. (For more info, read this great Huffington Post article on the science on HFCS.)

It's only in the last 20-30 years -- as the government-subsidized corn industry has tightened its stranglehold and processed foods containing HFCS have proliferated -- that obesity rates have skyrocketed. (Our current national rate stands at 33.8 percent, or about one-third of Americans.)

Our paradigm for working out is far more rigorous and demanding than "The Jack LaLanne Show," but as a nation we're fatter than ever.

LaLanne may seem like a throwaway throwback, but the man knew what was up: he was a vegetarian; he labeled himself a sugar addict at age 15 (in 1930!) and stopped eating desserts completely; he studied anatomy and designed a basic workout to stay healthy; and he invented the language of "get your life back!" motivation that's become the norm in modern fitness.

If you don't feel like working out or you don't work out at all, try watching an episode of "The Jack LaLanne Show" in the morning or right when you get home work. You'll laugh, but you might be surprised at what a little peppy organ music and a man in a jumpsuit can do to get you feeling right.

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