Mid-century fitness: Physical culture, a health nut, and his television show

The Jack LaLanne Show, Episode 1. From the Official Jack LaLanne channel on Youtube.

Mid-century living is about so much more than the stylistic trappings of design and decor. In considering how people actually lived in those years, and what lessons we can bring forward to contemporary times, we might give thought to what was involved in a mid-century approach to health and physical fitness.

Current thinking in the fitness world seems to view the seventies and eighties as some kind of “Golden Era,” the start of the fitness boom, ignoring anything older in favor of selling the latest marketable gimmick, which in most cases is probably just a rehash or mishmash of something from past decades. Of course, fitness actually goes back much further than that, and the mid-century era had its own systems of physical fitness which built on what had already come before then. This will be the first of my occasional “Mid-century fitness” articles.

The jazzy conveniences of modern living in the mid-century era meant that life was becoming more leisurely and sedentary than in previous decades. Unfortunately, this was not good for your fitness and health, and a few prominent people took notice. For example, president-elect John F. Kennedy wrote the following in his December 1960 Sports Illustrated article “Sport at the New Frontier: The Soft American”:

“But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies — whose physical fitness is not what it should be — who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation.” (source)

Wow… sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, since that time, obesity rates among the US population have more than doubled (source). But that’s a story for another day.

By the mid-century years, while society in general was apparently rather lax about health and fitness, there had been a kind of specialist niche for a number of decades known as “physical culture,” which focused on training for physical strength and prowess, together with development of the physique. At best, the public viewed this as some kind of sideshow novelty. It wasn’t something that regular everyday people really did. Heaven forbid somebody lift heavy things if they didn’t have to do so for their job!

Prominent figures in physical culture had promoted various exercise fads in the early twentieth century. Then, in the mid-century years, one physical culturist who worked hard to get the message out to the modern public that they needed to exercise more and watch what they ate was Jack LaLanne (1914-2011).

People’s most recent memories of the late Jack LaLanne may be of an elderly Mr. LaLanne promoting his juicing machine on long television infomercials. But in his younger days, he ran Jack LaLanne’s Physical Culture Studio (a gym) located in Oakland, CA; he wrote several books and booklets on exercise and nutrition; and he hosted an exercise show on television for several decades to get people more active (as seen up top). He entered physique competitions, and he was featured in men’s fitness publications. Mr. LaLanne was also a regular on the original Muscle Beach scene at Santa Monica, CA, where physical culturists demonstrated impressive feats of gymnastics, acrobatics and weightlifting for huge audiences. But that’s also a story for another day.


One of Jack LaLanne’s excellent books aimed at a general readership.

The type of moderate physical activity promoted on The Jack LaLanne Show was certainly better than sitting around and being a couch potato. However, Mr. LaLanne himself didn’t develop that muscular physique just by doing the basic calisthenics exercises that he demonstrated on television. I mean, just look at his arm on the book cover shown above! If you became a client at Jack LaLanne’s Physical Culture Studio, he would have put you on a regular strength training program with weights. Weights weren’t just for bodybuilders or Olympic weightlifters. They were for everybody!

Jack LaLanne found himself dismissed and derided as a “health nut” by mainstream doctors. Yes, medical doctors actually thought people shouldn’t be so concerned with health and fitness. Unbelievable, right? But of course, those were the days when cigarette ads claimed endorsement by “nine out of ten doctors.” As Mr. LaLanne described in this interview,  he had to fight against various misconceptions of the time; for example, that lifting weights would make you freakishly musclebound and inflexible, that it would give you serious health problems, that athletes and women shouldn’t lift weights, etc. Today we know that those ideas are hooey, and that Jack LaLanne was right about the benefits of strength training.

Over the years, Mr. LaLanne’s concepts of exercising with weights for health were vindicated, as weight training gradually became accepted and its health and fitness benefits gained greater recognition. It became more okay for regular everyday folks to exercise with weights. But if joining a gym to work out was intimidating, disagreeable, or not feasible for whatever reason, what could a mid-century person do? Stay tuned for the next article.

Further reading on Jack Lalanne and home nutrition: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2015/05/18/changing-household-cooking-jack-lalanne-and-the-1950s/

The Official Jack LaLanne site, with excellent information on Mr. LaLanne’s life and fitness accomplishments, as well as great products for sale, including reprints of some of his booklets from the 1950s: http://jacklalanne.com/


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