Jack LaLanne, the seemingly eternal master of health and fitness who first popularized the idea that Americans should work out and eat right to retain youthfulness and vigor, died Sunday. He was 96.
LaLanne died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay, Calif., his agent Rick Hersh said. He underwent heart valve surgery in December 2009.
Though for many years dismissed as merely a "muscle man" - a notion fueled to some extent by his amazing feats of strength - LaLanne was the spiritual father of the health movement that blossomed into a national craze of weight rooms, exercise classes and fancy sports clubs.
LaLanne opened what is commonly believed to be the nation's first health club, in Oakland, Calif., in 1936. In the 1950s, he launched an early-morning televised exercise program keyed to housewives. He designed many now-familiar exercise machines, including leg extension machines and cable-pulley weights. And he proposed the then-radical idea that women, the elderly and even the disabled should work out to retain strength.
Full of exuberance and hyperbolic good cheer, LaLanne saw himself as a combination of cheerleader, rescuer and savior. And if his enthusiasm had a religious fervor to it, well, so be it.