LaLanne's gospel of good health

I hate to admit it, but I'm kind of a gym rat. I'm not the toolish type of gym rat. "I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period." I've also never used them accidentally -- and you wouldn't suspect otherwise. But between playing basketball a few times a week and lifting weights two or three days a week, I'm in the gym pretty regularly.

Regularly. Not religiously.

The same could not be said for Jack LaLanne, the father of modern exercise who died Sunday at 96, as told by this obituary from the Los Angeles Times:

Full of exuberance and good cheer, LaLanne saw himself as a combination cheerleader, rescuer and savior. And if his enthusiasm had a religious fervor to it, well, so be it.

"Well it is. It is a religion with me," he told What Is Enlightenment, a magazine dedicated to awareness, in 1999. "It's a way of life. A religion is a way of life, isn't it?"

"Billy Graham was for the hereafter. I'm for the here and now," he told The Times when he was almost 92, employing his usual rapid-fire patter.

What a money quote. Reporters kill for such articulate and engaging interview subjects. But what did LaLanne actually mean by it?

If you followed LaLanne's career or at least read a few of his obits, you'd see a recurring theme in his life. He truly felt like his fitness calling was akin to someone called to enter the priesthood. And he regularly used religious language, even biblical stories, to pump up his followers -- calling his gym a "cathedral," referring to his feats as miracles akin to those Jesus performed and talking about being "born again" as a physically fit man.

But -- this is what I would like to see explored -- did LaLanne really feel that what he had created was a suitable substitute for belonging to a religious community? If so, what did it mean to be a follower of LaLanne? And did he really believe that his gospel of good health and regular exercise could serve the same societal function as religion -- giving adherents a sense of the sacred and bonding them in community?

I doubt it. Similarly, I doubt that LaLanne truly thought he could cheat death buy outrunning or out-swimming it.

Maybe that is a question that can never be honestly answered because so much of LaLanne's success hinged on his superhuman persona. But it's a question that nagged at me as I read this LAT obit and others.

Reporters used the word "religion," but they did not follow up on it. Thus, a ghost.

Please respect our Commenting Policy