What Jack Taught Us: A Guru Before There Were Guidelines

There once was a man who set a world record of 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes at the age of 42. At the tender age of 60, this same person swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Figuring the swimming part was too easy a feat on its own, he made sure it was a real challenge -- while swimming, he was handcuffed and shackled to a half-ton boat. He did a similar stunt 10 years later, at the age of 70. I've been thinking about this person quite a bit lately, since he recently passed away at the age of 96. And with this week's release of the nation's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, I'm reminded of his legacy and the principles he imparted about healthy living.

I'm not talking about a fictional character that lives between the pages of a superhero comic. I'm speaking about my friend Jack LaLanne.

Jack was an iconic figure who introduced the concept of fitness and healthy living to the masses long before food pyramids existed. His movement had a greater impact on American health than most people realize. Everything Jack accomplished in his life -- becoming a successful entrepreneur, a motivational speaker, television personality and author, always embodied his core beliefs of eating right and exercising. He practiced what he preached -- exercising like a fiend and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. But to assume he lived a Spartan lifestyle would be a mischaracterization.

Jack understood that good living did not mean prescribing to "food policing." While his diet was as exemplary as they come -- it kept him healthy for nearly a century while he also enjoyed the occasional dessert, glass of wine and plate of pasta -- all foods and drinks that too often fall into the "diet of the moment" or the list of "things you shouldn't consume category."

Jack was ahead of his time in recognizing the simple equation of energy balance. In layman's terms, to manage weight, you must balance -- what goes in with what comes out -- countering calories from food with those burned through exercise. Jack was on to something 50 years ago that was reiterated this week in the Dietary Guidelines.

As Americans learn about the Guidelines, it is easy to focus on all the things we should avoid. But my take on these Guidelines is a little more pragmatic. For instance, there is a lot of focus on sodium, lean protein and sugars. These are essential ingredients in most of our home cooking because they help to make foods tasty. These are also things we should clearly monitor as part of our entire diet so that we stick with moderation in our portions. I know Jack would preach the same thing and emphasize balance. If I enjoy a treat (my mom's homemade oatmeal raisin cookie) tonight, I'm going to add a high step in my run tomorrow morning.

For the majority of Americans, it's not finding the right balance in foods that's the problem. It's the output -- burning it up -- that gives people trouble. Therefore, one significant takeaway from these guidelines should be four simple words: Get Up and Move. As Jack once said, the challenge is not "finding" the time to do your life-giving exercise. Rather, it's "making" the time.

In honor of Jack LaLanne, I have developed my own short set of "Guidelines" below. These are tips I relay to my patients and, perhaps more importantly, live by each and every day.

Move Your Body: Many times I have had people approach me and tell me that they simply are too busy to fit exercise into their hectic lives. So I ask them a simple question: If someone were to give you $1,000 in cold, hard non-taxable cash if you could find 30 minutes in the day to do moderate physical activity, would you do it? I've never received a "no" answer. We're talking 30 minutes (1,800 seconds!) out of a 24-hour day to get up and do some deliberate movement. And you can break it up any way you want to and still see benefits. After working with countless patients, I have yet to find one who couldn't reprioritize their day to find 30 minutes to feel great and to save their life.

What Goes in Must Come Out: Food and beverages are meant to be enjoyed, albeit in moderation, but enjoyed nonetheless. But, it's critical that people account for whatever they put in their bodies, whether it's a chicken breast on a bed of greens, acai juice with breakfast, or a slice of chocolate birthday cake. Calibrate your physical activity according to what you ingest. Live in better balance.

Seek Help for Compulsive Eating: If you find yourself repeatedly binging or compulsively eating, I encourage you to seek professional help. There are people for whom certain foods may present a significant problem with binging and weight gain. Eating disorders are very much a reality in our world, and it's critical to find help if you believe you have a problem with this problem.

Savor Food and Drink: Whether it's a crisp, spinach salad with salmon and an ice tea or a turkey wrap with a soda, eat slowly, savor the meal and appreciate the food. It's important to understand that your balanced plan for exercise allows for enjoyment of everything we eat and drink.

Remember, as my friend Jack once said, "What's the good of living if you can't have the things that give a little enjoyment?"

Dr. Pamela Peeke is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and author in the fields of nutrition, stress, fitness. She is Chief Medical Correspondent for Discovery Health TV, and the author of the bestselling books Fit to Live, Body for Life for Women, and Fight Fat after Forty. She serves as a frequent commentator for national broadcast networks and consults with food and beverage companies including The Coca-Cola Company. Dr. Peeke holds the position of Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.