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A state where fitness governs?

People in the exercise business say a win by Schwarzenegger would boost public health -- and their industry.

September 15, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid for governor has the fitness industry in a tizzy -- a happy tizzy -- now that one of their own may get to run the state of California. Fitness executives and gym owners are hopeful that if Schwarzenegger is elected, he will help deliver many Californians from their slothful lifestyles -- and into their health clubs.

"I know that turning around California is going to be a full-time job, but Arnold really walks the walk when it comes to the issue of promoting physical activity and exercise," says Bill Howland, director of public relations and research with the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn., a Boston-based trade group.

Of course, one could make the case that political leaders as role models can go only so far. President Bush's dedication to regular exercise hasn't stopped obesity rates among American adults and children from rising at a steady rate. But then, Bush hasn't won any Mr. Universe titles.

"We're very excited about him being one of the leading contenders," says Mark Mastrov, chief executive of the San Ramon-based 24 Hour Fitness chain. On his wish list are more physical education classes for kids. "If he could have them exercising on a daily basis," says Mastrov, "that would be huge for us."

Schwarzenegger's campaign office didn't respond to phone calls about how much importance he plans to place on fitness should he be elected governor. Still, some fitness professionals believe that Schwarzenegger, a former chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, might push for health issues such as improved nutrition in schools, and urging health insurers to help pay for health club memberships.

But it's not just the big guys with big gyms who are rallying around the Schwarzenegger campaign. Sherman M. Brown, owner of Stern's Gym in San Diego and a Democrat, is high on Schwarzenegger these days. "He's a very smart guy and he's been a success in everything he's done," Brown says. Running California, he believes, will be no different.

"We've become an overweight nation," Brown says. "California is supposed to be one of the No. 1 states for health and fitness, and I see a lot of out-of-shape people. I think he'll push for better physical education programs in schools, have better lunch programs, and just put it out there to get some exercise. A healthy nation is a strong nation, and I'm sure he'll be working on programs to get our country in better shape."

Schwarzenegger might want to start with himself, judging by that unfortunate shot of him in a Speedo that ran in People magazine. During a stroll on the beach, the former bodybuilding champ revealed that his abs of steel had morphed into middle-age flab.

Played the right way, however, the photo might actually be used to Schwarzenegger's advantage.

Think of it: Arnold not as I'm-better-than-everyone-else movie star, but as a true man of the people who, despite those endless crunches, just can't seem to make those annoying love handles disappear.

"It's like Oprah," says Howland. "She admits to the fact that she doesn't always get to the gym or connect with her personal trainer as much as she'd like, and I think from our perspective the industry knows that the majority of Americans have those issues when it comes to staying with diet and exercise."

For the record, Schwarzenegger is not the only candidate associated with fitness. West Hollywood attorney Bruce Margolin has been practicing yoga and meditation for 30 years and wants, according to his Web site, to "make California a haven for the billion-dollar holistic health-care industry."

Any candidate or celebrity who promotes the benefits of regular physical activity is helpful in stemming the tide of obesity in this country, says Dr. John DiFiori, chief of sports medicine at UCLA, but there's just so much one person can do. "It's rather simplistic to assume that the problem could be overcome by the example of a single person," he says. "It's a very difficult problem and [the solution] is not going to be achieved easily or quickly."

Erik Flowers, co-owner of Body Builders Gym of Los Angeles, spent 15 years working in state government jobs in Nevada, including a stint as a speechwriter for the lieutenant governor's office. He says Schwarzenegger would have more pressing concerns on his hands, such as the budget crisis, immigration and unemployment.

"It's just so overwhelming," he says. "It's extremely difficult to get through the legislative quagmire and make a difference in one or two years. I think health and fitness are dire issues, but legislatively, everyone's going to be swinging him around to what's going on with finances. I think he's got bigger fish to fry. Well, it probably won't be fried fish, it'll probably be salmon, broiled."

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Times staff writer Jeannine Stein can be reached by e-mail at jeannine.stein@latimes.com.

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