The Size of the Fight in the Dog

A couple weeks ago, I had to wince when the chubby young anchor mispronounced Jack Lalanne's name while announcing his death at 96, although it was hard to blame her because by the time she was born, he was already a TOJ and could only be seen pitching his electric juicing machine on non-prime time informercials.

The anchor wouldn't have known that in his prime he accomplished some amazing feats of strength and endurance, like doing 1,000 push ups in 23 minutes and towing a half-ton boat behind him as he swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco. More, importantly, he single-handedly championed the benefits of exercise to the masses on his daily TV show. He was also one of the first to encourage women to lift weights. He was ridiculed by many "authorities" that if people exercised as hard as he recommended, all kinds of problems might befall them. Of course, all these fears were bogus - Jack LaLanne was a pioneer.

I rarely watched his show when I was a kid because I was outside playing sports. Besides, who needed to stand in front of a TV screen to be lead by an over-enthusiastic guy through a series of calisthenics and weight routines? And he looked sort of funny in his one piece jumpsuits with padding in the shoulders. He didn't need any padding because he had good muscle definition and was very strong.

It wasn't later that I realized his outfit was just part of his show. His appearance became his brand. From early in his career, he understood the importance of diet and exercise. The famous English physicist Sir Isaac Newton once credited his achievements to those scientists who came before him; in his words, he "stood on the shoulders of giants." Likewise, the legions of personal trainers and exercise celebrities from Richard Simmons to Tony Horton all stood on Jack Lalanne's shoulders, those of a man only 5"6" tall.

While reading some of the online tributes, I ran across an article that implied Jack LaLanne had failed because despite his life long crusade,  the percentage of obese people in the U.S.  rose from 13% to the present 34%. The author said, "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."

I don't remember LaLanne promising exercise was the primary means to lose weight. He wasn't selling a fast-acting, six weeks to a new you diet. He didn't have a reality show called The Biggest Loser. He admitted exercise is tough, but the results are worth it. He just made the case that it could help you stay healthy and feel good. He placed a heavy emphasis on good nutrition, i.e., nutrition and exercise control weight.

Exercise has many, many benefits (I rant about them all the time), but weight loss is not one of the main ones. What you eat has much more impact on your weight than exercise. Skinny marathoners are skinny not because they were once fat and now train 100 miles a week, but because they are predisposed to be skinny. In fact, if you exercise a lot, you will get hungrier and have to be vigilant to eat foods rich with the right vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Read the third chapter, "The Elusive Benefits of Exercise," in Gary Taubes' excellent book entitled Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.

Jack LaLanne was true inspiration for TOJs everywhere, and a shining example of the truth of the old coach's adage: It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's  the size of the fight in the dog.

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