Jack LaLanne and the Medical Community’s Opposition to Fitness

January is a frustrating month at the gym. Usually, when I go in for a workout, there are always a few unoccupied machines, some weights available in a combination of denominations, and unclaimed mats floating around in the stretching room. So unless you’re in there at peak hour – right before and right after standard office hours – chances are, you’ll be able to glide smoothly from machine to machine, room to room, finishing your workout to your satisfaction.

But not in January, no. January is the month of no-free-machines, the month when the smell of sweat and dirty socks hangs thick in the air, with a light lick of rancidity lent by the overactive grit writ large on the faces overcrowding the gym. January, dear readers, is the month of the New Year Resolutionists.

This year, I’m going to have legs like a supermodel. (No, you’re not, mostly because you like to eat at least one proper meal everyday. Well, I hope you like to, because if you don’t, you have bigger problems.)

This year, my pecs are going to look like Bradley Cooper’s. (I don’t know, does Bradley Cooper even have nice pecs? Anyway, you get the idea.)

Ok, I know it’s a good thing that people come out in droves to workout in the new year, because even if most of them find their enthusiasm tapering out by the end of the month, some of them will stay and actually focus on their fitness over the rest of the year. And I know I’m being a little selfish in demanding machine availability at all times, maybe even a little high-horsey by ranting about the not-so-regulars. But when you spend twenty five minutes waiting for a treadmill, and then a further seven minutes wiping it down with antibacterial spray, only to find that someone else innocently claimed it while you were darting to the trashcan to get rid of the paper towel, it is, to say the very least, annoying.

Yesterday, after spending nearly two hours at the gym, of which I actually worked out for about forty minutes, I came home and started complaining to Boyfriend (who, by the way, is still spending all his free time watching Doctor Who marathons, even though every trace of the flu has long fled his body).

“Oh my god it is SO difficult to get a good workout at the gym at this time of the year! Why can’t all the New Year Resolution people just go running outdoors? Or… I don’t know… maybe the gym needs to expand, or something. I can’t just sit around for an hour, I don’t have that kind of time to waste! (Actually, I did have that kind of time to waste, because it was Sunday. But that’s not the point.)

Upon hearing my rant, Boyfriend had dutifully tilted his chin in my direction, but his eyes remained trained on Christopher Eccleston in a motorcycle jacket, grabbing Billie Piper by the arm, and pulling her out of a room full of mannequins that had mysteriously come alive.

Truly riveting.

Truly riveting.

Obviously, I was further annoyed. And the anger radiating from my forehead must have spread across the room, because Boyfriend paused the episode, and looked at me like he’d just remembered something.

“Did you know…”

Oh, dear.

“Did you know that when the very first fitness gyms started in the USA, the medical community was against them? Doctors told their patients they would get heart attacks and hemorrhoids, and that women would start looking like men, if they worked out.”

It’s true, and it’s a story Jack LaLanne, one of the first fitness gurus in the United States, loved telling.

Jack LaLanne, the son of poor French immigrants on the northern coast of California, became a fitness enthusiast at a very young age, and at a time when fitness didn’t enjoy the following it has today in the US. In fact, the US was pretty late in joining the fitness juggernaut. While gyms existed in the country, they were meant only for weightlifters, body builders, and military men. Until after the Civil War, working out just for the sake of being fit was not a part of American lifestyle. European immigrants, who already had fitness down to a science, brought some of their machines and methods with them, but these didn’t catch on in the US until the twentieth century. (As you can see below, the general scariness of the machines in question may have had something to do with this.)

Veritable torture devices.

Veritable torture devices.

Anyway, back to Jack LaLanne: as a teenager in the very, very early twentieth century, he was a hyperactive kid with acne-riddled skin, a tendency to lose his temper, and what he describes as an addiction to sugar and junk food. Having been an acne-riddled, constantly dissatisfied, junk food gorging teenager myself, I can tell you that all Jack LaLanne needed to do, in order to overcome the great miseries of his life, was to wait until he stopped being a teenager, and started being an adult. (Really, being a teenager is evolution’s biggest practical joke on the human race. It sucks so bad.)

But Jack LaLanne was no ordinary teenager. When he was 15, he heard a lecture on diet and exercise by Paul Bragg, a legendary nutritionist. From that point on, LaLanne was hooked to fitness, and in 1938, despite the pile of deceased dreams that was the American economy, he started one of the very first fitness gyms of the country, in a crumbling office building in Oakland, CA.

And that’s when the onslaught from the medical community began.

Doctors, with their limited knowledge of fitness at the time, combined with the overwhelming fear of everything new, issued dire warnings of every nature to patients who expressed an interest in working out with weights and machines.

They said people would suffer heart attacks.

Ok, I can see why you'd think so.

Ok, I can see why you’d think so. (Image source.)

They said men would get hemorrhoids.

I'll admit, that does look uncomfortable.

I’ll admit, that does look uncomfortable. (Image source.)

They warned men would lose their sex drive, and wouldn’t have erections anymore.

I mean, that machine is some weird shit, yo.

I mean, that machine is some weird shit, yo. (Image source.)

And – horror of horrors – they predicted that women would start looking like men.

WHAT?! What are you talking about?

WHAT?! What are you talking about? (Image source.)

They also warned that athletes would become muscle bound, and people would start looking like bodybuilders, because all that excess muscle would make you walk funny. You know, like mannequins come to life on Doctor Who.

And then you will, inevitable, crash through a window.

And then you will, inevitable, crash through a window. (GIF source.)

Fortunately, Jack LaLanne – and Americans’ overall desire to have slimmer waists, skinnier legs, and bigger biceps – prevailed. (But it is surprising – if there’s anything I know about people in the early twentieth century – and some people even now – you could scare anyone into anything by claiming that women will start looking like men, and men won’t be able to get it up anymore.) LaLanne’s fitness center in Oakland became the prototype for the millions of gyms that mushroomed all across the country. And while the US continues to struggle with fitness, as the amazing push-up doing, smooth-dancing, vegetable-eating first lady loves to remind us, a lot of those problems actually find their roots in the larger socio-economic crisis that plagues the country. Americans in general are undeniably fitter than they were a century ago. And yes, they still have the Europeans to catch up with, but that goes for almost everything.

As for Jack LaLanne, he built an unmatched fitness empire, launched a TV career through which he took fitness into the homes of people, and remained a consummate showoff until the day he died. At 40, he swam the length of the Golden Gate bridge underwater, with about 140 pounds of equipment. At 60, he swam shackled, handcuffed, and towing a 1000 pound boat, from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. At 70, he towed – once again shackled and handcuffed – 70 boats with 70 people for a distance of 1.5 miles. Oh, and in a fitness competition once, he beat the hell out of a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the latter was less than half LaLanne’s age.



(Oh, LaLanne also sold patented juicers, which had to be recalled in a hurry because apparently they cut people’s faces, arms, and chests. But let’s not talk about that, shall we?)

Want to know more? Go here. And here. And see some more pictures of 19th century gym machines.


One thought on “Jack LaLanne and the Medical Community’s Opposition to Fitness

  1. Pingback: Winston’s Hiccup: The Strange Case of the Jordan-Saudi Arabia Border | Stuff My Boyfriend Tells Me


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