• Image about Jack Lalanne
LaLanne, still going strong, in September 2010
Photo Courtesy of Jack & Elaine Lalanne

At 96, Jack LaLanne is still preaching the gospel of physical fitness — and he has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Friday,
and Jack LaLanne is eating a salad at a waterfront restaurant in his hometown of Morro Bay, Calif., at a time when most people his age have been tucked into bed by a nurse’s aide. Sporting dark glasses to shade his eyes from the fading West Coast sun, he kisses my hand in greeting before checking me out.

“You look really good,” he says. “Like an advanced Jack LaLanne student.”

I preen at his assessment of my 40-something physique as his wife, Elaine, a slim redhead who possesses the vitality of a woman half her 85 years, gestures from across the table.

“Doesn’t he look great?” she crows. “He’s going to be 96 in a few weeks.” At this, Jack strikes his iconic pose — fists planted on hips and chest puffed — looking like the Mr. America that he was 55 years ago.

Long before Jane Fonda donned leg warmers or Jillian Michaels reduced contestants to tears on The Biggest Loser, there was Jack. He didn’t so much foster the growth of fitness as invent it, like an alien sent to Earth to enlighten the flabby and scrawny masses. If you’re of a certain age — say under 30 — you may know him from the ubiquitous late-night TV infomercials for his Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer. (“Change your life, save your life,” he chirps in the spots.) Older readers may remember him from The Jack LaLanne Show, the first and longest-running exercise program on TV, which began on San Francisco’s ABC affiliate in 1951, when stations were scrambling to fill airtime in the new medium. Jack, who referred to himself as a physical-culture expert, would excoriate Americans watching at home to grab a chair and slowly lift their knees to their chests. He would lead viewers through a series of simple leg lifts, side stretches and arm circles, all the while dispensing health tips (“Don’t wear your girdle around the house — it will cut off your circulation”) and singing corny songs.

He was an early advocate of exercise for women, and he was popular with children, who loved the way he leaped about at the start of each show, flinging his arms in the air over his head and spreading his legs. Jack is credited with popularizing the move, which is known, of course, as a jumping jack.

His show went off the air in 1985 (Jack was a spry 71 then), and LaLanne was replaced by a whole new crop of exercise gurus such as Richard Simmons and Denise Austin, who credit Jack for inspiring them to enter the business.

“I had one thing in my mind: to help people so they could live longer and feel better,” Jack says the following day from his sprawling ranch home, where a larger-than-life statue of him in one of his trademark jumpsuits overlooks the driveway. “I had that drive, and I still have it.”

He’s not just giving lip service, either. In addition to the continued promotion of his juicers — for which he recently traveled to New York to shoot a new commercial — he’s also launching an exercise program for senior citizens, called Jack LaLanne’s Better Balance for Life. The program is designed to help the elderly avoid falling and breaking their hips, an injury that contributes to 15,000 deaths a year.

For his part, Jack doesn’t intend to check out anytime soon. He’s still as feisty (and, at times, as raunchy) as ever, often referring to his wife by nicknames such as Iron Buns. But no one is entirely immune to the physical ravages of time — not even Jack. In December, he underwent open-heart surgery to replace an aortic valve. Though he’s still recovering from the procedure and sometimes uses a wheelchair to help himself get around, he credits his new workout program with helping him regain his mobility.