History of Fitness, The Great Depression and the earliest Media Fitness Instructor

Welcome back to our series on the history of fitness. Last week we talked about a time in America of great excess and celebration. Today however, we are going to discuss a much darker time in United States History, The Great Depression. 

In October of 1929, the stock market crashed. This ushered in what would be over a decade of economic depression in the United States. Health related programs that were founded by previous United States Presidents lost funding, as emphasis on the poor economy forced focus to shift elsewhere. Most families were barely getting by, and food dense in nutrients were sparse, so understandably the health of the nation declined overall. 

Despite this, however, there was one man that shaped future fitness trends, although he was often dismissed by doctors as being “an exercise ‘nut,’ whose programs would make them [their patients] ‘muscle-bound’ and cause severe medical problems.” Why? Because his programs focused on weightlifting, a trend that had yet to take off in the United States. He also preached the importance of a preventative lifestyle in regards to overall health maintenance, and even designed the first leg extension machines, pulley machines using cables, and the weight selectors (including safety bars that made squat machines safer for the average user) that are now standard in the fitness industry!

So who was this man? None other than Jack LaLanne, who would later become the nation’s first fitness media instructor. Born on September 26th, 1914, Jack LaLanne was a self proclaimed sugar and fast food junky until his mid teens. He blamed a lot of his early health problems on his poor diet. During college, however, he extensively studied Henry Gray’s “Anatomy of the Human Body”, where he learned the importance of a proper diet and exercise routine. He shifted his focus to bodybuilding and weightlifting, and in 1936, he opened the nation’s first health and fitness club in Oakland, California. 

In the 1950’s, 25 years before the likes of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda made fitness shows wildly popular, the Jack LaLanne Show began airing on television. He developed fitness programs including aerobics, water aerobics, and resistance training. For 36 years, he presented health and exercise advice on TV, urging viewers to get up off the couch “with the enthusiasm of an evangelist,” and used household objects such as a chair to facilitate exercises. At the time, a lot of experts thought he was crazy, and did not condone his approach to fitness. However, we know by modern standards that LaLanne was well ahead of his time, and his approach is still used today!