Elaine LaLanne, 96, on how she and late husband Jack LaLanne redefined health and fitness in America: ‘I learned so much from him. But he learned a lot from me, too’

Elaine Lalanne, 96, has encouraged Americans to get up and move for nearly half a century of a century alongside her late husband Jack Lalanne. (Credit Getty Images and Caitlin Murray)
Elaine Lalanne, 96, encouraged Americans to get up and move for nearly half a century alongside her late husband, Jack Lalanne. (Photo: Getty Images and Caitlin Murray)

Unapologetically is a Yahoo Life series in which people get the chance to share how they live their best life — out loud and in color, without fear or regret — looking back at the past with a smile and embracing the future with excited anticipation.

Elaine LaLanne says her life can be divided into two acts: before Jack and after Jack.

Jack, of course, is Jack LaLanne, her late husband whose television program The Jack LaLanne Show (1951 to 1985) helped redefine America's approach to health, fitness and nutrition.

Aside from popularizing what are now known as jumping jacks and opening the nation's first modern health club in Oakland, Calif., in 1936, Jack was also the inventor of many gym staples — including the world’s first leg extension machine, weight selector machine and cable/pulley machines — as well as the first nutrition bars and "instant breakfast."

Through it all, Elaine was his silent business partner — and his wife, for 51 years, before Jack died in 2011 at the age of 96. Their illustrious careers earned them the titles "Godfather" and "First Lady" of fitness.

Jack and Elaine LaLanne, seen here circa 1960s, were pioneers in the health and nutrition movement in America. (Photo courtesy of Elaine LaLanne)
Jack and Elaine LaLanne, seen here in the 1980s, were pioneers in the health and nutrition movement in America. (Photo courtesy of Elaine LaLanne)

"My life is an open book," Elaine, 96, tells Yahoo Life in a video interview from her home office, where stacks of Jack’s old photos and diary entries tower her desk. "Research," she says, that she's collecting for an upcoming book about her late husband's early life in television.

Reading his old diary entries has been cathartic, says Elaine, and in many ways has reminded her of why she fell in love with him in the first place.

"I was inspired again," she explains. "If you knew Jack, you couldn't be around him and not be inspired. He was funny. He was short [spoken]. And had a lot of sense. I used to say, 'I want to dig out all that stuff in that brain.' All my books that I've ever written — I've written seven — guess who I went to? I asked him about this. I'd ask him about that. I learned so much from him. But he learned a lot from me, too."

The Jack LaLane Show was a local, daily exercise program in San Francisco when it debuted in 1951. Eventually, it grew to national syndication and ran for over 30 years, during which time the couple — alongside their dogs, Happy and Lucky — challenged viewers to think differently about their eating habits.

When it first aired, Elaine says most critics labeled the duo "crazy health nuts."

"This was all new stuff," she explains of the food education Jack gave viewers, particularly around refined sugars (it's not that great for you), butter (same theory) and the idea of eating naturally sourced ingredients. While these ideas are pretty mainstream today, it was a tough lesson for American viewers to swallow at the time, given that most household diets consisted of "mashed potatoes and gravy" and "butter, plastered on everything,” she says.

"That's just what we were eating in those days," Elaine notes of the American diet in the late 1930s and ’40s. "A lot of people pooh-poohed him in the newspapers, you know, he was a 'crackpot on television.' But he had a way about him. And more and more people would listen.

"I remember saying, 'This makes a lot of sense,'" she notes of his message. "He could put it in a way, in a simple way. See, Jack was a very simple person. He wanted to make everything simple. He wanted to make exercise simple. He didn't want to make it complicated. That's just the way he was."

The LaLannes pose in their California home, circa 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Elaine LaLanne)
The LaLannes pose with a healthy spread in their California home in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Elaine LaLanne)

"It's amazing what Jack could do," adds Elaine, who worked in television before meeting her husband, noting that her team called him "One Take Jack," for his ability to come up with a last-minute spot on live TV whenever a station asked him to.

"They'd say, 'Give us a 10-second pitch for the station.' Whatever the station was, in Cincinnati or New York or whatever, they always wanted him to do a little spot because he already knew it in his brain."

Indeed, Jack preached the benefits of healthy living and longevity well into his 90s, later appearing on several talk shows to advocate for the effects of juicing fruits and vegetables.

As his partner in life and business, Elaine helped execute many of his artistic visions, which, earlier this month, earned her and her late husband (and Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who sparked the aerobics fitness movement) the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

Still, though their success was a shared effort in many ways, Elaine says she never minded being second fiddle to her affable husband.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I have not been one who needs accolades. All I want to do is help people," she says, noting that "helping people to help themselves" was a shared mission.

Nowadays, Elaine is carrying Jack’s mission forward, using her own experience to speak about health, wellbeing and longevity. She argues it comes down to one basic principle: "Keep it simple."

"Jack was once asked a question about exercise: 'Do you really like to exercise, Jack?' He said, 'Well, I don't know, but I like the results,'" she says. "So, the thing is if you go to the the gym, think about the results that you're going to get, because if you stick with it you're going to get the results. And you're going to live longer, I think, because here I am today at almost 97. I totally know I would be six feet under if I hadn't became interested in my body. It's like he says: 'It's God's living temple.' You don't treat your car like you do your body, right? You don't put water in your gas tank."

"I just try to do the best I can with the equipment I have," she adds. "Jack was a great motivator. He talked about how you can stay motivated, to dare to dream and overcome obstacles, how your attitudes count in your life and how it changes your life."

Elaine continues: "The mind is a mind. It's full of diamonds, and all you have to do is dig 'em up."

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