Election day is all about choice. Republican or Democrat? Liberal or conservative? But in this year's presidential election, physical fitness is one subject on which both candidates agree.
Compared with the average middle-age American male, President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry are exceptionally fit. Before he was sidelined with a knee injury last winter, the president maintained a running schedule of three miles a day, four days a week, and he also enjoys hunting, fishing and golfing. Mr. Kerry has been featured on the cover of American Windsurfer magazine and counts long-distance bicycling and skiing among his hobbies.
Michael O'Connor, the chairman of the Kinesiology and Health Science Department at Augusta State University, said it's no surprise the two candidates are in tune with fitness.
"Successful people find the time for exercise; we find that a lot in the corporate world, too," he said. "They're very organized, and even through they're busy, they still leave room for the workout."
Both men set a great example for the American public, and because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that 60 percent of Americans are overweight, it's an example that's sorely needed, Dr. O'Connor said.
"The standard that's been set by the surgeon general is to exercise at least five days a week for at least 30 minutes, whether it's moderate or vigorous," he said. "What we're concerned with is just getting people to get to that five times for 30 minutes standard."
Mr. Bush's and Mr. Kerry's exercise habits are noteworthy even if the image of a physically robust chief executive is not new. John F. Kennedy campaigned in part on his youthful looks, even though he was afflicted with Addison's disease, and Bill Clinton runs and plays golf. Ronald Reagan was an avid horseback rider, and George H.W. Bush is still skydiving. Even the supposedly clumsy Gerald Ford was an All-American football player who played tennis, swam and golfed.
The current candidates have taken fitness to another level, though.
Mr. Bush ran a 3:44 marathon in 1992 and told Runner's World magazine he has inducted secret service agents into a "100 Degree" club for running with him in the Texas heat.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Mr. Kerry described kite-boarding, a sport that combines windsurfing with parasailing and requires extraordinary upper-body strength, as a form of meditation, connected to both the water and the wind.
Their hobbies belie the notion of not having enough time. Dr. O'Connor said you don't have to be super-organized or the leader of the free world to work exercise into your day. Park on the fringe of a parking lot and walk a quarter of a mile to the store. Mow the lawn yourself. Garden. Avoid the elevator and walk up stairs.
"The human body is amazing, but if you don't take care of it, it'll succumb to lifestyle-related diseases," he said.
Even when people do think about exercising, they drop out of exercise programs with depressing regularity, and that's what frustrates Dr. O'Connor most.
"My expertise is getting people more physically active, and I wish I could solve that," he said. "The amazing thing is the dropout rate for exercise programs is about the same as people quitting smoking."
The easiest way around that is to pursue more realistic goals, such as committing to walk three times a week for 20 minutes.
Overestimating what their bodies can do is another way middle-age men get themselves into trouble. Brian Lancaster, the director of Doctors Hospital Center for Sports Medicine, said the center often sees the results of well-meaning weekend warriors who overdo it on the golf course, the baseball field or the basketball court.
"A lot of the churches have gotten bigger and nicer recreational facilities," he said. "I have seen several people who have been playing basketball with church league and pulled a hamstring or strained a back."
Before jumping headfirst into a sport you have not played since college, Mr. Lancaster suggests, stop by the Center for Sports Medicine for informational pamphlets to better prepare yourself.
"Flexibility isn't gained from a 2-minute bounce to touch your toes; we recommend 12 minutes for golf," he said.
As for those who fall back on lack of time as an excuse, Mr. Lancaster said it's all a matter of perspective.
"People have to realize that 20 minutes a day can save years on your life. I have to tell myself the same thing every day when I start my own workout," he said. "You talk to people who have had heart attacks, and they have a new perspective. People who have lost weight have gained so much more enjoyment."
Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.