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THE NATION

Bush Urges Americans to Get Off the Couch and Into Fitness

June 21, 2002|MICHELLE MUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When President Bush ventured out onto the South Lawn on Thursday, the questions weren't about his plans for ousting Saddam Hussein or moving the Middle East toward peace. Instead it was: "Did you work out today?" and "Show us your muscles!"

The commander in chief's appearance marked the official launch of a new federal effort to get Americans to stay fit, eat healthier and kick bad habits such as smoking, drinking and abusing drugs.

In a campaign reminiscent of one launched by President Kennedy four decades ago, Bush appointed a presidential council and issued an executive order to promote fitness. He also issued 12 pages of recommendations on how Americans can improve their lifestyles.

Bush, 55 and an exercise enthusiast, can run a mile in six to seven minutes, aides say. Most days he runs three miles on a treadmill. Lifting weights also keeps the president fit.

"Exercise is a part of my daily life. It kind of helps me deal with the stress a little better," the president wryly noted.

"After I get a good run in," he claimed, "I even like the press corps a bit better."

Standing in the morning sun in an open-collared blue shirt, khaki trousers and a belt emblazoned with the presidential seal, Bush ignored his cue cards and turned passionate.

"How about just walking 30 minutes a day?" he asked an audience made up of preteen soccer players, seniors and assorted amateur and professional athletes.

"That's pretty simple. It's easy to do," he said. "How about parents just playing a game with children in their backyard for 30 minutes or an hour? It would be good for the child, it would be good for the parent and it's good for the family."

There is reason for the president's concern. A third of American children get less than one hour of exercise a week, experts say. As adults, they could turn into couch potatoes; already 60% of American adults get no exercise.

"It's amazing how unhealthy and unfit Americans are," said Nick Baird, a physician and member of the newly created President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. But he contended that Americans can develop healthy habits even if they start on a small scale.

"You just have to take a small step; pretty soon that builds on itself," he said.

Better health has a financial payoff: About $138 billion is spent on heart disease treatment each year, according to statistics cited by the White House. One-third of cancer deaths could be prevented by improving diet and fitness.

Bush maintained a light tone, joking that he had been trying for years to get his father to eat broccoli. Former President George Bush famously displeased farmers by refusing to eat the vegetable or serve it at state dinners.

Staffers chatted about their regimens. White House counselor Karen Hughes, wearing black spandex shorts and a white T-shirt, said she swims one mile, five times a week.

Some in the audience talked about how they had anticipated the health boom decades ago. Myrtle Smith Church, the reigning Ms. Senior District of Columbia, said walking and yoga help her minimize her arthritis and maintain a 123-pound physique ("with no girdle") at 76.

Twice a week, Church takes part in a stretching program at a seniors' center.

She avoided troublesome addictions early on. "I tried to smoke, but I didn't like it," she said, adjusting her rhinestone tiara.

Church glanced at the stage, where music boomed and people in their 30s and 40s bounced, part of an aerobics squad made up of top Bush staffers. Twelve trainers from the Sports Club/LA fitness chain mounted the stage to demonstrate kickboxing and military fitness moves.

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