Caucus Takes Shape

Fitness Group Calls on Members to Lead by Active Example

Posted February 14, 2003 at 4:00pm

Sorry, there is no excuse for sloth and bad eating habits. If Members of Congress can find time for regular exercise and a balanced diet, then so can the harried, overtime-amassing majority of Americans, according to Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), co-founders of the Congressional Fitness Caucus.

The caucus’s formation was announced Thursday in a press conference attended by Washington Freedom soccer player Ann Cook and Cmdr. Penny Royall, executive director of the President’s Physical Fitness Council, among others.

Wamp and Udall recently sent a “Dear Colleague” letter asking Representatives how often they visit the House gym or use the stairs, and subsequently challenged them to “lead by example” to encourage the American public to become less sedentary. The caucus was formed partly as a response to recent reports on the increasing obesity of the American public, particularly among teenagers, according Udall and Wamp.

Some might wonder what difference seeing a few Members of Congress in the gym might make on American fitness habits — especially considering the plethora of American celebrities promoting special diets and workout videos already. But Udall and Wamp see a crucial difference.

“People don’t usually assume that Congressmen have personal trainers and lots of time to pursue fitness,” Udall told Roll Call. “They might think that [celebrities] are not like me, whereas people understand that [Members of Congress] travel a lot and have busy schedules. So if we have the time, maybe they can find time as well.”

No mass jogging or pre-meeting sit-up sessions are planned for caucus members so far, but the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition and the American Alliance for Health and Physical Education, Recreation and Dance already distributed pedometers to Members and urged them to take at least 10,000 steps a day.

“Udall and I are both gym rats,” Wamp said. “We are not on a crusade to make others do what we do, [but] we are clearly on a mission to … show … how a fit lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle is a productive lifestyle.”

Udall says some colleagues have “kidded him about trying to run them through a boot camp,” but he hopes to emphasize that fitness can be fun. “I know the old adage about ‘have you ever seen a smiling jogger,’” he said, “but it doesn’t have to be grim.”

As well as jogging and working out, Udall is an avid mountain climber and kayaker and also participates regularly in bipartisan pick-up basketball games in the House gym. Playing basketball, golf and baseball are Wamp’s favorite physical activities, according to his Web site.

The two Representatives are also co-chairmen of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Caucus. Udall partly credits their mutual interest in renewable energy for their fitness advocacy — exercise renews his energy, he says. “[Fitness] is just looking at your priorities … the payoff is the efficiency you gain from the new energy.”

Despite the talk of jogging and pick-up basketball, most of the caucus’s work will still consist of planning meetings and events, just as more pedantically oriented caucuses. They hope to collaborate with the President’s Physical Fitness Council, host educational seminars, and promote existing fitness events such as the Sporting Goods Manufacturer’s Association annual 3-mile run.

At the press conference, Cook and Royall both spoke about the new goals of the presidential fitness program, which recommends exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week. That might sound daunting, but Royall emphasized that any physical activity at all qualifies, from mopping the floor to taking the stairs, and that the activity can be broken into segments.

“Park your car at the far end of the lot instead of wasting 15 minutes driving around looking for a spot close to the store,” Royall urged.

Cook said she understood that it “is harder in the real world” to find time for exercise, but generally took a harder line. “I mean come on,” the soccer player urged. “It’s only 30 minutes. … Instead of watching that ‘Seinfeld’ re-run, walk on a treadmill or something.”

Royall also compared the increasing percentage of obese Americans and the rise of diseases associated with sedentary lifestyles to a “war” that needed to be fought as urgently as the war on terror.

“When people ask me, ‘What can I do for my country,’ I say, ‘Be healthy,’” Royall observed. “A healthy America is a more prepared America.”

The first caucus event will be a breakfast briefing on Feb. 26 by Dr. Jim Hill, a researcher on nutrition at the University of Colorado’s department of health sciences. Skim milk and cereal will be substituted for bacon and eggs, according to Wamp.