The Obamas: First Couple of Fitness


The Obamas are making history, not just as the first African-American president and first lady, but perhaps also as the fittest first couple ever.

That role model, in turn, may inspire millions of sedentary Americans to get moving, exercise and preventive health experts hope.

Both the new president and first lady are regular exercisers, managing to squeeze in workouts despite their hectic schedules. It’s difficult not to admire their dedication. When in Chicago, the new first lady was said to begin her day with a 4:30 a.m. gym workout.

Instead of kicking back and getting some extra sleep the day after he won the election, Obama showed up at his gym at 7 a.m. for a workout. The new president’s washboard abs — snapped by photographers during his Hawaii vacation — rival that of a 30-something leading man in Hollywood.

Comparisons aside, it’s clear that exercise is serious business for the Obamas — and more about maintaining health and mental acuity than looking good.

“Barack is almost religious about getting in his workouts,” says Alan S. King, a close friend of Obama’s and an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath in Chicago. “He values his workout time as time to think and relieve stress. I’d say he’s also driven by the fact that he wants to be fit and healthy to be around for Michelle and the girls [daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7].”

Obama Exercise Program: The Routine

The new president’s would put many men half his age to shame. Obama, 47, combines his love of basketball with treadmill workouts and weight training, say those who have observed his workouts or played hoops with him.

Obama told Men’s Health magazine in its November issue that his typical routine includes working out for 45 minutes, six days a week, including cardiac-strengthening routines and weight lifting. That’s in addition to his famous basketball games — played whenever possible and always on election days.

“He alternates days between strength and cardio training and gets in as much basketball as his schedule permits,” King tells WebMD.

Irene Trantas, a master trainer at the Philadelphia Sports Club at Rodin, observed Obama work out on three different occasions when he stopped in while on the road. “You could definitely tell he has a routine, he works out, and he is familiar with the routine,” she tells WebMD. During his stops there, he combined a treadmill run and elliptical trainer with weight training, including the chest press, overhead press, leg press and other conditioning exercises, she says. “He is strong.”

Obama Exercise Program: What Keeps Them Moving?

By now, workouts have become an ingrained habit for both Barack and Michelle Obama, says Jim Cauley, a political consultant in Louisville, Ky., who managed Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.

During that campaign, Cauley says, “Everybody fought for his time. [But] he was adamant he got his workout time.”

Even when the schedule was jam-packed. “His logic was always, ‘The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time,'” Cauley tells WebMD. “I never worked out with him, but I can speak to his need for it.”

The workout time got penned in, more often than not. “When he had a big moment in the campaign — like a debate — we always gave him time,” Cauley says. “It was almost part of the debate preparation.”

He kept up that same routine during his presidential bid and after he won the election. Last month, it was reported that he had gone to the gym for 90 minutes a day for at least 48 days straight.

Besides using fitness to stay in shape and help clear his head, Cauley thinks Obama saw it as valuable “alone” time, especially after he gave up driving himself to campaign events. “He had less time to himself,” he says of those days after he had a driver. He thinks that made the workouts, especially the solo ones, even more precious.

The same seems true for the new first lady, Cauley says. “She used to get up early” to work out, he says. “The two of them are pretty methodical and very into working out.” According to press reports, she gets in 90-minute workouts three times a week.

Obama Exercise Program: Obsessive or Not?

While some may wonder if the new president is a bit obsessive about his fitness, exercise experts say he’s anything but, noting that he is following exercise guidelines.

Under current guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adult Americans should strive for two and a half hours a week of moderate aerobic physical activity, and kids should get an hour or more of physical activity a day. The workouts should include not only cardio strengthening routines such as running, hiking, or brisk walking but also strength training for adults (such as weight lifting) and muscle strengthening for kids (such as rope climbing).

Less than 65% of adult Americans met those guidelines in 2007, according to a report published in December 2008 in the CDC’s Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report.

Calling the Obamas’ exercise program excessive is incorrect, says Angela Smith, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. She points out they both do a mix of activities. They not only follow the recommendations for the suggested time, but have well-rounded routines including cardio and strength training.

“If someone is doing push-ups for 90 minutes a day, that’s excessive,” she says.

“I think he has a really good exercise program, one we should all be on,” says William O. Roberts, MD, professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, of the new president’s routine. Roberts, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine, considers exercise as medicine in his practice.

“It’s the cheapest, easiest thing to do [to improve health],” he says.

Following the exercise guidelines produces not only health benefits but other advantages, especially for high-powered people, says Gregg Miele, a Beverly Hills, Calif., personal trainer who has worked for singer Mary J. Blige and numerous other entertainment industry people. “I’ve worked with an artist who wrote his music in his head when he ran,” Miele says. He suspects that Obama uses his workout time to problem-solve as well.

Obama Exercise Program: Will Their Fitness Habit Rub Off?

Colleagues who work out with Obama say his enthusiasm helps get them revved up about exercise, too.

“His dedication to it has inspired me,” says King, the Chicago lawyer who often shoots hoops with Obama, “and hopefully his example will inspire many Americans to pay great attention to their health and fitness.”

Exercise experts are hopeful that will be the case, too.

“Like it or not, they are going to be role models,” says Angela Smith. “The Obamas have an incredible opportunity to influence fitness among adults and children.” A good thing, she says, given the obesity epidemic among U.S. youths.

At the very least, observing the first couple’s fitness routine may put the time crunch dilemma into perspective for the rest of us, others say. That Obama kept up the exercise routine throughout the grueling campaign is impressive, says Jeannie Moloo, RD, a Sacramento, Calif., dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Seeing the first couple manage to squeeze in exercise will be a wake-up call, she predicts. “It will make the rest of us wake up and say we don’t have much room for excuses as far as the time factor goes.”

Miele agrees. People may look at the ability of the Obamas to fit in workouts, consider how much less stressful their life is in comparison to the leader of the free world and his wife, and conclude: “Maybe I could find the time, too.”

Obama Exercise Program: No Role Model Is Perfect

Part of the Obama appeal, say the experts, may be that they are not perfect role models. The new president has been known to sneak a cigarette or two, a bad habit he says he will give up.

“He’s got to get that cigarette out of his mouth,” says Roberts.

He’s been seen eating a cheeseburger or two, although his post-workout snack has been described as trail mix washed down by organic tea.

If Moloo were counseling Obama, she would suggest he eat plenty of -rich foods to counteract the tobacco use.

As for the cheeseburgers? In moderation, they’re fine, she says.