Fitness Caucus on the Hill takes up the cause

Ever thought that somebody oughta write a law to make Americans exercise and eat better? Might still happen. About 100 members of the House of Representatives' first fitness advocacy group -- the Congressional Fitness Caucus -- are interested.
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Ever thought that somebody oughta write a law to make Americans exercise and eat better? Might still happen. About 100 members of the House of Representatives' first fitness advocacy group are interested.

The Congressional Fitness Caucus, founded earlier this year by a Tennessee Republican and a Colorado Democrat (guess opposites do attract) who found common cause in their enthusiasm for working out, has gotten a small start by sponsoring educational seminars and 10-kilometer run/walks. One day, however, it might pick up the pace by pushing for healthier living through federal grants and changes to the tax code.

Capitol Hill abounds with caucuses, from the Human Rights Caucus to the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues. Some endorse specific legislation while others are educational. The Fitness Caucus' present goal is to educate the decision-makers -- in this case, of course, about the benefits of fitness and physical activity -- and grow its membership of about 100 representatives to 218. That would be a congressional majority. And that, you see, would it give clout.

"We do support certain legislative initiatives, but we're trying to figure out how much consensus we can develop around some of the more extreme legislative measures relative to fitness and nutrition," co-founder Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., told SNEWS.

Wamp added that many caucus members support several bills currently in committee, such as the Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act (IMPACT), which gives grants to local governments to encourage nutrition and fitness programs for desk workers and students. There's also support for a House resolution (HCR 474) urging insurance companies to offer lower premiums for those who exercise regularly, and another bill (HR 1818) that would give tax breaks to companies that subsidize their employees' gym dues.

"When you get into labeling food products or fast food products or restricting certain types of foods in different parts of the country, it becomes a lot more controversial," Wamp said.

One thing the caucus can agree on is that diseases like obesity and Type II diabetes are a multi-billion-dollar drag on Medicare and Medicaid, and issues like that might be the kick start needed for true federal action that would encourage physical activity. "If we don't do something, we're going to have a problem we can't absorb," said co-founder Mark Udall, D-Colo.

The Caucus, which has a website being developed to give it a face to the public, meets once or twice a month to give congressional staff members a chance to hear from obesity experts or from those who run effective state fitness-oriented programs, Udall said.

Can fitness retailers and industry suppliers do something to help the caucus? You bet, Udall said: "They can help by taking part in the seminars we have here and by going around to members' offices to let them know fitness is a priority."

The two founders, whom Udall described as "self-professed gym rats" in the House health club, also founded the caucus for the simple reason that their colleagues themselves need to de-stress, get more active, and slim down as a model for the people they represent.

"We both verge on the edge of being righteous about this because we feel good when we get a little bit of exercise every day. We're nicer to be around," Udall said, before rushing off to take part in a vote on the House floor. "Clearly," he added before dashing, "it's one of the ways we cope with a very stressful job."

SNEWS View: This is one step toward getting federal support in some way that could give a boost to the image of and participation in physical activity and fitness at many levels. Since we know you'll want to find out more and will offer to help, here's the info: Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., 202-225-3271, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., 202-225-2161. For contacts to other congressional members, go to www.house.gov and click on "Directory," or www.senate.gov and click on "Senators."

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