Fit To Lead

Americans have long been fascinated, and sometimes inspired, by what their presidents do to stay active

November 10, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,

While campaigning in Pennsylvania in March, Barack Obama stopped at an Altoona bowling alley.

Not the best idea, in retrospect.

After his first ball rolled directly into the gutter - and his second followed - pundits savaged Obama's athleticism. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough called the senator's game "dainty" and "prissy."

Bowling might not be Obama's game, but when the Illinois Democrat assumes the presidency in January, he's poised to become one of history's fittest commanders in chief.

Americans have long been fascinated by the vigor - or lack thereof - of its leaders. From Teddy Roosevelt's wrestling and boxing to George W. Bush's grueling bike rides, when a president breaks a sweat, cameras inevitably start clicking. In fact, in the television age, it's hard to imagine the election of someone like Howard Taft, who tipped the scale at well over 300 pounds and got stuck once in the bathtub.

Obama, a tall, slim, 47-year-old, works out, runs, rides a bike and famously turns to basketball on Election Day as both a de-stresser and good-luck charm.

In May, Men's Fitness magazine named him one of its "25 Fittest," describing how Obama starts every day with a workout and generally skips fatty foods.

The magazine quotes former Duke University player and Obama staffer Reggie Love on the president-elect's hoops game: "He's wiry-looking but actually pretty strong," Love said. "And he hates losing. He plays hard."

Fitness advocates hope Obama can inspire Americans to get active just as he inspired young people, minorities and those who never voted to go to the polls.

"He has an enormous ability to lead by example," says Dr. James Hill, the co-founder of America on the Move. "Obama is the kind of guy who can have fun and make this inspirational. I'd love to see him become a role model for physical activity and fun."

Over the summer, one of the blogs on posted an extremely detailed description of Obama working out at the Washington Sports Club in Dupont Circle.

The post overlooked nothing - the white headphones, the tricep presses with 15-pound dumbbells, the overhead extensions with 50-pound weights, the calf raises.

"If you ask people who aren't active why they're not, the biggest excuse you get is they're too busy," Hill says. "Who's busier than the president?"

President George W. Bush has also found time in his presidency for reported daily workouts. But Hill doesn't think Bush managed to get his athleticism to rub off on the rest of the country.

Philip Haberstro, executive director of the National Association for Health and Fitness, hopes Obama will use his skills as a community organizer to take the message of health and fitness into schools, churches and neighborhoods.

If Obama can get Americans to be more active, working it from the grass-roots level, Haberstro thinks the next president could curb the rising childhood obesity rate and rising health costs. Only two out of three adults get the level of physical activity they need, which is about 30 minutes a day.

Though it won't be easy, he points out that in 1964, one in two Americans smoked - now only one in five do.

"You have that sense of possibility, that sense of hope he's offering the nation," Haberstro says. "Democracy is like physical activity - what we put into it determines what we get out of it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.


John F. Kennedy (1961 - 1963): Slowed - and sometimes incapacitated - by various health issues, Kennedy wasn't the most active president. But he was an enthusiastic sailor, and photographers captured him tossing the football around. And, by jump-starting the President's Council on Physical Fitness, an office President Dwight D. Eisenhower created, Kennedy was the first president to push Americans to be more active.

Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969): Johnson didn't really do that much to advance physical fitness. In fact, he ranks sixth on RealClearSports' list of the Top 10 Least Athletic Presidents. But Johnson did expand the name, at least, of Kennedy's council to President's Council on Fitness and Sports. He also established the first Presidential Physical Fitness Award to go to athletic boys and girls ages 10 to 17.

Richard Nixon (1969-1974): A bench-warmer for Whittier College's football team, Nixon didn't have an athletic background. In fact, he paved over the White House pool to create an office for the press corps. But his administration established the Presidential Sports Award to motivate people - not just kids - into regular physical activity.

Gerald Ford (1974-1977): Thanks to Chevy Chase's Saturday Night Live impersonations, many became convinced that Ford was a klutz. But Ford, who loved skiing and swimming, starred on the University of Michigan football team. He asked businesses to organize fitness programs.

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