Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book Of Running and credited with igniting America's zeal for jogging in the 70s died in 1984. He was 52. Fixx died of a heart attack during his daily run.
Both athletic men. Both exercised daily. Both were public figures with large followings whose wealth and fame depended on their continued performance.
Both started off in sickly shape. By age 35, Fixx weighed 220-240 pounds and smoked two packs a day. LaLanne described himself as an emotional and physical wreck before age 15 - pimply, nearsighted, and addicted to sugar and junk food.
Why did LaLanne live to 96 and Fixx to only 52? You could say their genes encoded their long, or short, lives. I don't think that fully explains it. Genes predispose but they don't predict; they aren't the only determinants of health, they may not even be the most important. In fact, having a genetic predisposition is all the more reason to attend to those things you can control - like diet and exercise. (It's often said that Fixx had a genetic predisposition for short life since his father died at 43. LaLanne's father died at age 50.)
In my mind, there are two things at play here. One is the long-term damage wrought by poor handling of our body in early life. The other is the importance of the triple play: diet, exercise, attitude.
Fixx had several more years of unhealthy living to undo when he started running and presumably stopped smoking at age 35. Seventeen years of frequent intense workouts were not enough to assuage the damage he did to his body in his youth, or for that matter, while he was running. Indeed, his autopsy revealed considerable plaque build-up: "atherosclerosis had blocked one coronary artery 95%, a second 85%, and a third 70%." (The photo is about 4 years before he died.)
Atherosclerosis is a chronic condition, taking years to develop to the point of symptoms. That doesn't mean children aren't susceptible.1 I would bet LaLanne also had plaque by age 15.
Atherosclerosis is also a systemic condition; however, some arteries are more vulnerable depending on the assault. Smoking appears to target the coronary arteries while high blood pressure affects all arteries. The combination can be deadly since most heart attacks (and strokes) are caused by plaque formed peripherally, elsewhere in the body, that brakes off and clogs a cardiac artery.
Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis. A report this month by the National Research Council says that effects of past smoking linger for several decades. Poor diet also contributes to plaque. I haven't read much about Fixx's diet (what he ate, not what he promoted) although this doesn't look good:
"Ultra-marathoner Stan Cottrell said he and Fixx appeared together at a conference,” [authors Murphey and Kuzma] write. “Just before Fixx went in to speak, he ‘stuffed himself with four donuts and said, “I didn’t have time for breakfast." ' "2There are reports that Fixx continued to eat a poor-quality diet, including fast food. John Robbins in his book Healthy At 100 writes:
"Exercise is tremendously important, but sometimes people try to accomplish with exercise alone what can be achieved only with a combination of exercise and nutrition. Those who believe that exercise can compensate for a high-fat diet, excess sugar consumption, or other dietary transgressions could learn from what happened to a remarkable man named Jim Fixx.
Jim Fixx had not always been a runner. Up until his mid-thirties, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, loved his burgers and shakes, and weighed 220 pounds. But at age thirty-five, he stopped smoking and began running. Within a short time he was running eighty miles a week and racing marathons, and had lost all his excess weight. His belief in the healing powers of running was so great, though, that he did not think he had to change his diet much. In his bestselling book, Fixx repeatedly quoted Thomas Bassler, M.D., who was then claiming that any nonsmoker fit enough to run a complete marathon in under four hours would never suffer a fatal heart attack.
Jim didn't just ignore expert advice that he needed to eat more healthfully. On at least one occasion, he went out of his way to criticize those who offered such advice. At the time, probably the world's foremost advocate of a low-fat diet as a means to open and heal clogged arteries was Nathan Pritikin. In his book titled Diet for Runners, Pritikin described a conversation he had with Jim Fixx that took place in January 1984:"Jim Fixx phoned me and criticized the chapter "Run and Die on the American Diet" in my book The Pritikin Promise. In that chapter, I said that many runners on the average American diet have died and will continue to drop dead during or shortly after long-distance events or training sessions. Jim thought the chapter was hysterical in tone and would frighten a lot of runners. I told him that was my intention. I hoped it would frighten them into changing their diets. I explained that I think it is better to be hysterical before someone dies than after. Too many men, I told Jim, had already died because they believed that anyone who could run a marathon in under four hours and who was a nonsmoker had absolute immunity from having a heart attack."Sadly, only six months after this conversation, a passing motorcyclist discovered a man lying dead beside the road in northern Vermont. He was clad only in shorts and running shoes. The man was Jim Fixx.
The real moral of Jim Fixx's tragic death is that while exercise is wonderful and necessary for a healthy life, it cannot make up for poor eating habits."
LaLanne's renaissance at 15 was more thorough. The following interview is revealing. LaLanne was 91 years old at the time. Some excerpts:3
His belief in exercise:
"LaLanne: You can eat perfectly but if you don't exercise, you cannot get by. There are so many health food nuts out there that eat nothing but natural foods but they don't exercise and they look terrible. Then there are other people who exercise like a son-of-a-gun but eat a lot of junk. They look pretty good because the exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you've got a kingdom!He obviously wasn't a fan of long distance running:
Exercise is the catalyst. That's what makes everything happen: your digestion, your elimination, your sex life, your skin, hair, everything about you depends on circulation. And how do you increase circulation? By exercise. I'll tell you one thing, you don't always have to be on the go. I sit around a lot, I read a lot, and I do watch television. But I also work out for two hours every day of my life, even when I'm on the road.
Take a guy that's 60 years old and hasn't exercised. Say you exercise him for 6 to 8 weeks--you can double his strength and double his endurance. Test after test has been done all over the world to prove this. They have even taken people in their 90's and put them on a weight training program and doubled their strength and endurance. Just think what the younger people at 50, 60, 70 and 80 can do if they can do that with 90 year olds.
If you haven't exercised for a long time, just start out for a couple of minutes a day. Then work it up a little bit. You'd be surprised at the end of thirty days, how many things you are doing."
LaLanne: "Twelve to seventeen minutes is plenty on the treadmill--if it's done fast. That's all you need for cardiovascular benefit. You don't need to spend that extra time unless you are over weight and you need to burn off extra calories."Taking control:
LaLanne: Everything you do in life, I don't care, good or bad--don't blame God, don't blame the devil, don't blame me, blame you. You control everything! The thoughts you think, the words you utter, the foods you eat, the exercise you do. Everything is controlled by you.Diet:
God helps those that help themselves. You have to do it! God or some omnipotent power or whatever you want to believe in gives you the energy, the will to do it, but you have to do it yourself.
LaLanne: What I do today, I am wearing tomorrow. If I put inferior foods in my body today, I'm going to be inferior tomorrow, it's that simple.Low-carb:
Hughes: In your book you mention that you were a vegetarian at one point for 6 years.
LaLanne: I was a strict vegetarian. Then I decided to enter a Mr. America contest (which I won) and in those days they thought that in order to build muscle you had to have meat. So I ate meat for a while.
Hughes: Why did you stop being a strict vegetarian?
LaLanne: In those days everybody was saying that you had to eat meat to build muscle, so I went on a meat thing for awhile. Now I only eat fish--no chicken, no turkey, just fish. I get all my protein from fish and egg whites.
I use no milk of any kind. Anything that comes from a cow I don't eat.
Look at the average American diet: ice cream, butter, cheese, whole milk, all this fat. People don't realize how much of this stuff you get by the end of the day. High blood pressure is from all this high-fat eating. Do you know how many calories are in butter and cheese and ice cream? Would you get your dog up in the morning for a cup of coffee and a donut?
I drink 6 or seven glasses of water a day. I also drink vegetable juice. And I have at least 5 or 6 pieces of fresh fruit everyday and 10 raw vegetables.
Hughes: How do you feel about organic foods?
LaLanne: It's a bunch of bull. How do you know what's really organic? Today, there's all these impurities in the water and the air. The water for the fruits and vegetables has junk in it. If you get enough vitamins and minerals out of normal food and whole grains, and you get enough proteins and exercise (that's the key) then nature builds up a tolerance to all of these things. It's survival of the fittest. You can't have everything perfect, that's impossible, but the fit survive.
The way I eat, I get my nutrition from fruits and raw vegetables every day. My wife and I eat out practically every night, and I've got every restaurant trained. The Chinese restaurants we go to have brown rice, and other restaurants make sure they have the right soups for us, with no butter or cream.
Hughes: What do you think about the current low-carb craze?Supplements:
LaLanne: It’s a bunch of bull! If God, or nature, or whatever you want to call it didn’t want you to mix carbohydrates, starches and fats, you’d never have a grain, you’d never have a vegetable or a fruit, would you? What’s in a grain? It’s got carbohydrates, starches, fats, sugar. It’s got everything in it. Why does nature do that? One guy says don’t mix carbohydrates, and the other guy says don’t mix protein with it; it’s all a bunch of lard, something to sell a book.
Hughes: Do you use supplements?Finally:
LaLanne:Are you kidding? About 40 or 50 a day. Everything from A to Z. Ninety percent of them are natural, as much as I can take. I take enzymes, I take herbs, the whole bit!
Hughes: Do you take prescription medications?
LaLanne: Nope. Zero!
Hughes: Do you see yourself living to be over 100?To me, LaLanne preached and embodied the better prescription for long life. Here he is in his heyday in the 1950s. This was from the first episode of his show. You can see more on his site. He was a real salesman, wasn't he. Could sing too.
LaLanne: I don't care how old I live; I just want to be LIVING while I am living!
Related Post: Robert Atkins And Nathan Pritikin
2 Running Yourself To Death, 2005
3 Interview With Jack LaLanne: Legendary Fitness Expert, Health Pioneer, Diet And Nutrition Innovator, Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher
Photo of LaLanne at a charity event in 2008 from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Photo of Fixx in 1980 from Canada's CBC News