Harkin Makes Promoting Wellness Personal

Posted August 10, 2009 at 11:01pm

Most Senators constantly check their BlackBerrys. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is far more concerned with another electronic device: his pedometer.

“It reminds me, Don’t take that subway,’— Harkin said, shaking a pointed finger at the underground trolley that carries Members and staff from the Capitol to the three Senate office buildings.

Instead, Harkin, 69, walks. He walks to and from the Capitol building; he walks up 138 steps to his seventh floor Hart Building office.

“One hundred thirty-eight steps. Two, three, four times a day. That’s not bad,— the five-term Democratic Senator said, citing his fitness statistics as easily as he would recent figures from the Agriculture Department.

When he walks, Harkin occasionally taps his pedometer like he would a watch, making sure it — and he — keeps ticking.

It’s all part of a health and wellness regimen Harkin is constantly promoting. He favors homemade soups to preservative-laden lunches, sticks to salmon and spinach salad at the weekly Democratic policy sessions, nixes passed hors d’oeuvres at receptions and stays clear of freshly baked treats at state events.

Still, the notoriously healthy eater does admit to occasionally giving in to his Midwestern habits.

“Well, I’ve got to be for meat,— the Iowa Democrat and Agriculture chairman quipped.

Harkin has “marginally high blood pressure— and as a result has become scrupulous of his sodium intake.

“I can get by on 500 milligrams,— he proudly said after votes late one night.

Harkin brings homemade soup — his favorites are black bean or lentil — to work and convinced the Dirksen cafeteria to begin offering low-sodium options.

“But they do it only two times a week. That’s just ridiculous,— he said.

A member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Harkin penned the prevention and public health section of the panel’s health care reform bill that entices federal agencies to consider wellness programs. He wants the Transportation Department to build bike and walk paths alongside new roads and offer tax rebates to employers who promote healthy lifestyles.

“As Congress moves forward with comprehensive health reform, we need to put wellness and disease prevention at the heart of that reform,— Harkin said at a June 11 press conference, where he touted legislation requiring chain restaurants to provide nutrition facts on their menus.

Harkin walks before work and watches television news while he sweats on an elliptical trainer. Like school children with recess, the veteran lawmaker takes walk breaks to burn pent-up energy after sitting in long meetings, a habit he said has caught on among Senate colleagues.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be walking, talking with a Senator, and I say, OK, well I’m going to walk this way,’ and they say, You know, I think I’ll walk with you,’— he said.

Passionate about his fitness, Harkin praises those Senators who share his cause.

“That’s one thing we really agree on. Max Baucus is great on wellness!— he cheered, complimenting the Montana Democratic Senator who is an avid runner. Harkin and Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, have sometimes been at odds in the health care debate.

Of President Barack Obama, another light eater and routine exerciser, Harkin said: “I’m on his case all the time.—

The Agriculture chairman has encouraged his carnivorous colleagues to take up his dinner routine of fruit, cheese and white wine. He takes one baby aspirin daily, along with a regimen of other vitamins.

“You’ve got to set an example,— Harkin said. “You’ve got to practice what you preach.—