By Leslie Barker | Photos by Kim Leeson.
Thirty years look good on the ever-healthy, ever-fit, ever-smiling Larry North. Thirty years of preaching the fitness gospel. Of being the go-to guru for a healthy lifestyle. Of showing by example, how nutrition feeds our bodies and our souls.
Thirty years ago, he opened the first of his name-bearing gyms; this one, in Highland Park Village. When that 28-year-old upstart signed the lease, he had no bank account. He’d been working not only as a personal trainer but also as a shoe salesman and nightclub bouncer. Furniture in the apartment he shared with his kid brother, Adam, consisted of two mattresses and a treadmill.
But he knew that what he was offering could not only save lives, but, also, enrich them. So, with an optimistic outlook and fervent belief in himself hoisted upon his strong shoulders, Larry North stepped up to the starting line of the life he wanted to live.
He looks great. Not merely “great for his age” — which is 58 — but just great. No surprise he says he’s “leaner and in better shape than I was in my 30s.”
Recounting his daily food intake, Larry tells how he, once famous for shunning fat, now eats fat-resplendent egg yolks and avocados regularly. He’s still all about the chicken breasts, but gone are his egg-whites-only omelets and his regimen of brown rice and vegetables. Oatmeal, once a ubiquitous mainstay, is no longer a gastronomic given on his plate.
“It doesn’t matter what path you choose. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Keto, vegan — it’s the quality of food,” Larry says. He and I are taking a morning break, together, at Deli News, close to his North Dallas home. “If you just count calories, there’s a difference in the quality of sliced bologna versus the quality of grass-fed beef.” Food science, he continues, is more important than ever.
“The good news is that it’s easier than it’s ever been to eat healthy,” Larry says. “It doesn’t take discipline to make good food choices; it takes discipline to not make bad food choices.”
Fat’s newly respected place in a healthy lifestyle isn’t all that has changed since Larry opened his very first gym. Healthy food, in general, is more accessible. In the ‘80s, many restaurants offered a Larry North Plate, featuring Larry’s cornerstones: chicken breast, brown rice, vegetables. Now, healthy options can be found on just about any Dallas restaurant menu and in the proliferation of products at such grocery meccas as Central Market and Whole Foods Market.
Thirty years have also brought changes in gyms — both in the sheer number of them and in the rise of those devoted to a single type workout: yoga, Pilates, barre, indoor cycling, stretching.
One more change? Larry himself.
“In my 20s and 30s, I was more of a bulldozer,” Larry says.
It’s not that he’s slowed down, exactly, though he does periodically meditate, or at least try (three minutes at a time, tops, compared to his wife Brenda’s hour or more).
And while he’s still all about (and darn good at) sharing his hallowed path to fitness, life continues to teach him that fulfillment is found in much more than tight abs and a regimented eating plan.
“I’ve gone from being all about weight loss and fitness to all about having the optimal life,” Larry says. “We all want the same things: Happiness. Love. Prosperity. It’s a daily process. Yes, I gotta go to the gym and make good decisions, but also I think: ‘How can I be kind today?’”
He mulls possible answers to this question, charts his schedule, sharpens ideas, and catches up on texts — all while walking on a treadmill every morning at one of his gyms. In an hour, he covers just three miles, but speed isn’t the point; he’ll push himself later. This is where he sets his day.
And if he’s lucky, it’s a day that turns his rock-solid body into mush. A day, that is, he gets to see his beloved grandson, Mateo.
“Oh my God,” he says at the mere mention of the little boy’s name. He pulls out his phone, showing a photo or two or three. Then he pauses and gathers his thoughts.
“I have many personas,” he says. “Each is different. I’m Mr. Energy. I’m a patriarch. I’m a business owner. My grandbaby Mateo gets a guy with no persona. He gets a big goofy guy who makes him giggle. He stretches my cheeks, pulls on my nose. He calls me Papa and is so freakin’ cute.”
When Larry married Brenda — a yoga instructor whom he says “gives me balance” — he married into a family with two teenagers: Lauren, now Mateo’s mom, and her brother Landen. For these dozen years of marriage, Larry has cherished his role as their stepfather. And with the birth of Mateo came a whole new layer of love.
“I never expected that kind of love,” Larry says. “No airs. Never having to be anyone other than who I am.”
Throughout most of his life, Larry wasn’t close to his own father, a man he describes as an abusive gambler who spent time in and out of prison.
When Larry was 15, his mother, Beverly Miller North, piled him and his 5-year-old twin brothers, Adam and Alan, into the family’s 1963 Chevy. They’d already left New York for Las Vegas to escape their dad; now they were headed to Houston, a place Beverly had randomly selected on a map.
But just north of Dallas, their car died. They ended up staying at a hotel in Richardson, seeking help from Jewish Family Services and living on the 99-cent buffet at Pancho’s restaurant and 10-cent hot dogs at the then-newly opened NorthPark Center. His mom worked as a secretary and babysat to make more money.
Larry is proud of his mom, now 85, who went from being overweight to becoming a pioneer of Overeaters Anonymous. She exercises regularly at her son’s club, and he speaks to her every day.
“We had food. We had books,” Larry said. “One thing Mom gave us was overwhelming love.”
From his dad, he continues, “I learned lessons about what not to do. There’s no right way to do a wrong thing.”
Years later, when his father was released from prison and had developed cancer, Larry and his brothers made a decision: Despite their history, the man was still their father. They couldn’t let him die, alone.
“We brought him to Dallas,” Larry says. “He had been given a month to live, but he lived 12. We had closure. That’s where forgiveness started for me.”
He tells his story about his father when he talks about forgiveness to groups. He loves helping people look inside their hearts.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t let lack of anything keep you from achieving everything,’” he says. “Once you choose to truly forgive and forget, once you get past that thing, it unlocks potential for so many wonderful things.”
He believes everyone has a gift and that connecting with people is his.
“If I can touch people close to me or trigger something positive in their lives,” Larry says, “I’ve done my job.”