People don’t die of old age, they die of inactivity,” —Jack LaLanne.

Old LaLanne
LaLanne at 92, with all of his teeth, his natural joints, vision and hearing (and wits) intact.

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne died in January at age 96 – a muscular old gentleman with his mind and teeth and every organ intact. LaLanne had been teaching fitness since Franklin Roosevelt was president, educating the nation on TV broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s. LaLanne believed that the secrets of longevity were not secret at all; they were ancient, time-tested, and above all, accessible. We could all achieve them. LaLanne in the 1960s detailed a three-point plan for longevity, which was simply this: good nutrition, exercise, and positive thinking. He proved himself right by living another five decades and into his 90s, and outliving his own father by more than 50 years.  LaLanne demonstrated that longevity could be achieved without scientific advances; in fact, he favored a low-tech, hard-won approach, one which prevented the need for medical intervention. Hear his simple wisdom in the videos below.

The rewards of his three-point plan, LaLanne promised, were health, happiness and a “perfect figure”; the alternative was ill health, gloom, sickness and death, “A lot of times prematurely, because you disobeyed nature’s laws. It’s that simple.”

Time and LaLanne have proven, it is that simple. We have written before about Blue Zones – places in the world with high longevity and good health. People in Blue Zones are not just old (in their 90s and 100s), they are spry and active like LaLanne, with low rates of cancer and heart disease. Outside of genetics, the factors in their longevity come down to lifestyle, particularly diet, exercise, and happy, low-stress lives; exactly what LaLanne observed, decades before.

For diet, LaLanne advised us to “Start eating food in its natural state,” and “If man makes it, don’t eat it.” He believed that we are an animal, and advocated a diet more like that of our primitive forebears; after all, that is how we were designed. “Cooking kills,” he urged. “Eat more fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, more lean cuts of meat.” He advocated lean meats, the kind which are now called “grass fed.” He was a fan of raw vegetables, or ones lightly steamed – in short, the raw food diet now trumpeted by people like Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. He did not believe that eating grains was natural to us, but it would be decades before low-carb diets caught on. People in those blue zones do eat that way; the centegenarians on the Greek island of Ikaria eat fish and locally-grown produce; they suffer only one half the rate of heart disease and 20 percent less cancer than do Americans.

For exercise, LaLanne believed that we eat everyday, sleep everyday, and our bodies were made to exercise everyday. It was nature’s law, as nature designed us to hunt and gather, fight or flee. LaLanne worked out with weights, but for his viewers (whom he called “students”), he promoted light exercise and plenty of it. Most of the exercises he demonstrated qualified as calisthenics. Here again, the Blue Zoners prove LaLanne correct. Exercise in these zones is moderate and purposeful; people walk the hills, ride their bicycles, sow and reap by hand. And they do so daily – not in a couple of guilt-trips to the gym for 20 minutes on the treadmill.

And positive thinking? LaLanne spent nearly as much time in his broadcasts talking about positive thinking as he did about exercise. In one broadcast, he detailed a 10-point self improvement plan, of which physical activity was only one point. Half of the 10 points were aimed at mental wellbeing. They were –
#3: Positive thinking;
#6: Smile;
#8: Help others;
#9: Relaxation;
#10: Faith.

All of that sounds simplistic – but only because LaLanne put it so simply. The way he described relaxation sounds an awful lot like meditation: “If you can, spare five or ten minutes to lie down in a dark room and relax…and release some of that nervous tension” – in short, you will reduce stress. Smile more, and “People will like you more and you’ll enjoy yourself more” – that is, you will make fulfilling social connections. Helping others strengthens your bonds with your community, and having faith in nature and God gives you a sense of well-being; you are not alone, ever.

LaLanne nailed it. Those people who live past 100 tend to have led stress-free lives, surrounded by family and tight communities. People in the Blue Zones likely find it easy; they live in remote, sometimes idyllic settings like the Greek island of Ikaria and the Italian island of Sardinia. But America’s oldest man, 112-year-old Walter Breuning, lives in Great Falls, Montana, and LaLanne lived in Los Angeles. Longevity is where you make it.

LaLanne did not believe in shortcuts to longevity. “Rich people think they get everything they want, they’ll go to their doctors and buy their health!” he declared. Put that way, the idea is absurd (and in the early 1960s it was). But dig a little deeper into the field of regenerative medicine – the practice of reversing damage to the body, be it accidental or disease related. The field is advancing rapidly. A company called Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) was just cleared by the FDA for clinical trials to treat two degenerative eye diseases, using embryonic stem cells. One of those diseases is dry age-related macular degeneration, which afflicts nearly 15 million Americans. Once ACT proves the effectivity of stem cells in curing eye diseases, it plans to cure everything from cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, diabetes and burn injuries. In time, regenerative medicine will be commonplace. Perhaps it will keep us alive and healthy well beyond the 96 years that LaLanne lived, and regardless of our health habits. But if we the living hope to take advantage of those advanced medical technologies, we will have to survive for however long it takes to develop them, which could be decades.

The only proven path to stretching longevity by decades is the one that LaLanne blazed for us. LaLanne needed no regenerative medicine, because he never allowed himself to degenerate in the first place. Pneumonia got him at last, not any avoidable lifestyle-related illness like the enlarged heart and cirrhotic liver that struck down LaLanne’s father in his 40s. “My dad actually committed suicide,” LaLanne lamented, with a poor diet and inactivity. As we reported before, the US Centers for Disease Control found that people live longer when they focus on wellness, not on illness. In short – the guy who exercises his heart lives longer than the guy who gets new valves.

The secret of longevity is, after all, to earn it. But LaLanne believed that everyone could.

[Photo credit: 2007, Nathan Cremisino]