FIT TO LEAD

The Baltimore Sun

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 Politico.com 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.

ACTIVE ROLES?

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.

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981): An avid tennis player, Carter was known to play as much as five times a week. According to Time, the president "can execute an impressive one-and-a-half flip off the diving board at the Camp David pool." While in office, Carter took up jogging and in 1979 while running a 10K, he passed out because of heat exhaustion.

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): The outdoorsy president was often pictured riding horses and chopping wood at his ranch. Though he certainly liked jelly beans, he swam and played golf. His administration issued a physical fitness postage stamp. In retirement, at the onset of Alzheimer's disease, Reagan continued to golf and go on walks on his ranch.

George H.W. Bush (1989-1993): Much to the dismay of nutritionists, Bush expressed his dislike of broccoli. But he also tapped movie star and weightlifter Arnold Schwarzenegger to be his fitness advocate, and the muscled star toured the country promoting the benefits of exercise. Bush also invited other stars and athletes to the White House lawn to participate in his Great American Workouts.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001): Though his affection for McDonald's became notorious, Clinton was also an avid golfer and jogger, running three or four miles a day, often around the National Mall. He converted a room at the While House into a workout room and installed a quarter-mile outdoor track. It wasn't until his quadruple coronary bypass in 2004, however, that Clinton lost weight, got serious about fitness and began working with the American Heart Association to fight childhood obesity.

George W. Bush (2001-current, pictured above): Bush is often cited as the healthiest president of all time. He boasts a resting heart rate of 43 beats a minute, a number some professional athletes can't match. He has run a marathon, mountain bikes and lifts weights. He reportedly never misses a day of exercise. In 2002, he presided over a four-day fitness campaign that included leading White House staffers on a three-mile run.

Barack Obama: The 44th president used to smoke, but he quit last year. He's been known to frequent hotel gyms and put in 45-minute runs. Though he put away a waffle or two on the campaign trail, Obama is a healthy eater. His Election Day ritual involves shooting hoops with his friends and staff. He's rumored to have a pretty mean jump-shot.

More about presidents' contributions to fitness PG 2

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