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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Bodybuilding champion, actor and ex-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the late fitness guru Jack LaLanne on Tuesday as a "saint" for inspiring millions of people to stay healthy and avoid sickness.
Schwarzenegger spoke at a music and joke filled memorial in Los Angeles celebrating the life of LaLanne, who died at age 96 on January 23 of respiratory failure from pneumonia.
During the service, LaLanne was described as a sometimes eccentric fitness personality who sang out loud in public, worked out in his 90s and clutched an exercise weight on his deathbed.
He opened the first modern health club in 1936 and became a fixture of TV in 1959 when he began starring in a fitness show. Dressed in a close-fitting jumpsuit, he would exhort housewives to exercise and eat right.
Schwarzenegger, who won the Mr. Universe title for his bodybuilding long before he became a Hollywood movie star and politician, told the crowd of around 500 mourners that LaLanne, the son of French immigrants, should be considered a saint for inspiring people to exercise and avoid sugar and fatty foods.
"Can you imagine how many millions of people he saved from going to the hospital in the first place or dying in the first place?" Schwarzenegger said.
"That is why I say that Jack LaLanne is a saint," he said.
The service itself came with an exercise portion.
When fitness icon Richard Simmons got to the podium, he had the audience reach up to stretch their muscles. Actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who played comic book character The Hulk on TV, did a couple jumping jacks on stage.
Simmons said that his own mother would watch LaLanne on TV when he was growing up in New Orleans, and that LaLanne inspired him to lose weight and get fit, just as LaLanne himself as a boy had to overcome his addiction to sugar.
Several speakers noted that when LaLanne first opened his gymnasium, his critics said working out was bad for the heart and they wondered who would want to pay to exercise.
"Also they said it could reduce your sex drive and if that's true, how then can Charlie Sheen work out every day?" Schwarzenegger said, referring to the actor who in recent days was hospitalized following numerous media reports about wild parties at his home.
LaLanne several times swam the San Francisco Bay and other waterways while towing boats, sometimes when he was handcuffed.
"I believe Jack is a human fish because I believe his mother gave birth to him in the San Francisco Bay," Ferrigno joked.
In his later years, LaLanne was again a fixture of TV, this time on late-night infomercials where he touted the health benefits of his juice-making machine.
Family members described LaLanne as a shy man, despite his feats of strength and outgoing personality.
"I wouldn't be half the man I am today without him, because he taught me to go the extra mile in everything and anything that I do," said his son, Jon LaLanne.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte