Gym Rat in Chief? Obama's Fitness Regimen

Some say Obama is obsessed with fitness, but others say it sets a good example.

December 3, 2008, 6:22 PM

Dec. 4, 2008 — -- Snacks of fruit, pistachios and Fiji water. Grueling cardio sessions at the gym. And ruthless five-on-five games on the basketball court.

Sounds like an obsessive health or fitness nut -- or Barack Obama, who just finished a marathon 21-month campaign to win the presidency.

Since the end of one of the most combative elections in American history, the president-elect is routinely caught emerging from his daily gym workout in his trademark black White Sox cap and white Asics sneakers.

Some headlines -- "Barack Obama Shames Americans With His Elitist Body" -- charge his exercise regimen is obsessive. Or that the man who was so organized and in control on the path to the White House needs a physical outlet.

Still others, such as U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who played basketball with Obama on Election Day, say his behavior on the basketball court provides positive insight into the new presidency.

"In some ways he plays like he leads politically -- even though that sounds contrived," Casey told "He's quietly confident and quietly competitive."

Just this week during the Governor's Conference in Philadelphia, Obama visited a favorite local gym and worked out alongside the regulars.

"He always does cardio, usually the treadmill first for 20 to 30 minutes and then elliptical for the same amount of time," said William Nelson, assistant manager the Philadelphia Sports Club in Franklintown, Pa.

"I didn't see an ounce of fat on him," Nelson, 32, told "He's lean and he looked like he's in great shape."

One jogger at an adjacent treadmill couldn't keep up.

"Barack was just too fast for him," said Nelson, who so resembles Obama he easily portrayed him on Halloween.

The president elect usually combines cardio with strength training, lat pull-downs and back exercises.

"For a thin guy, he's muscular in the chest," he said. "He's never out of breath and the amount of work he does for a man his age, he is above average."

ABC reporters covering the transition say Obama never misses his daily workout. When he is in Chicago, he goes to a gym at his friend Mike Signator's Regents Park apartment building, which is about five blocks from his house, right by Lake Michigan.

Not 'Taking It Easy' on the Court

"The main reason I do it is just to clear my head and relieve me of stress," Obama told Men's Health magazine. "My blood pressure is pretty low and I tend to be a healthy eater."

"Most of my workouts have to come before my day starts," he said. "There's always a trade-off between sleep and working out. Usually I get in about 45 minutes, six days a week. I'll lift [weights] one day, do cardio the next. I wish I was getting a 90-minute workout."

But some days look obsessive. During the primaries, ABC News reported that Obama worked out 188 minutes in gyms on one day. First, he used his friend's Chicago gym, then he campaigned in Indiana before returning for another workout. After that, he played basketball.

The campaign said his initial gym visit was interrupted by a telephone call, so he went back to finish. Obama also met with his trainer at Chicago's East Bank Club to check on a sore hip.

Obama's passion is basketball, which he often plays at the East Bank Club with his old friend Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and his brother-in-law Craig Robinson, basketball coach at Oregon State University.

"What the public doesn't see is how competitive he is," Duncan told "He plays to win."

"He's an athlete," he said. "This is an important part of who he is."

Duncan said he and other players don't hold back for fear of hurting the president-elect.

"We don't take it easy," he said. "That would ruin the competitive nature of the games, and that's what it's all about."

Obama told ABC News' Barbara Walters that he considered tearing up the White House bowling alley and replacing it with a basketball court.

"Well, it turns out that there's a tennis court in the White House, and I think the guys in charge say they maybe can put a couple of basketball hoops at either end. So that may be good enough for spring," he said. "And, I hear there's a gym at Camp David. So, we may leave the bowling alley in place, partly because it's clear I'm going to have to practice if I want to get any good."

The half-joke about his bowling abilities referred to a campaign stop in a bowling alley where he quit trying after throwing nothing but gutter balls.

Obama's predecessor was no slouch when it came to fitness: Bush was known to jog on a treadmill aboard Air Force One, cycle, weight lift and stretch six days a week.

On Election Day, Obama played what had become his "lucky charm" basketball game with old high school and law school friends. Duncan and Casey joined them.

"He did really well," Casey told "He's actually a very good player."

Obama's Temptations Include Cigarettes

Casey, who is 48, warns that basketball is not only intense, but dangerous. When he played in an over-30 league at age 31, he broke his nose and severed his Achilles tendon. Duncan also admits to breaking his nose at a game.

"You're running in short, hard sprints and your other parts are moving laterally and jumping," he said. "When you're my age and his age, you're not supposed to be playing. You have to be careful. You're more apt to get hurt."

But both men describe Obama as "smart," playing guard and maintaining his distance.

"He's disciplined and steady," said Casey.

Obama's focus on exercise may actually bode well for the country.

"It gives you more mental endurance and more energy to think clearly," he said. "For a president, that's not a bad thing."

Even Obama's snack food is lean: Planters Trail Mix (nuts, seeds and raisins), MET-Rx chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and Black Forest Berry Honest Tea, an organic brew that's hard to find.

He does, however, have his temptations: smoked sea-salt caramels in milk chocolate. And there is also the much-reported on-and-off battle with cigarettes.

"I was never really a heavy smoker," Obama told Men's Health in November. "Probably at my peak I was smoking seven or eight a day. More typical was three. So it wasn't a huge challenge with huge withdrawal symptoms.

"There have been a couple of times during the campaign when I fell off the wagon and bummed one, and I had to kick it again," he said. "But I figure, seeing as I'm running for president, I need to cut myself a little slack."

In his interview with Walters last month, Obama talked about his continuing effort to quit the smoking habit.

"Part of what I think comes with this role as president is not that you're perfect, but hopefully you're trying to set a good example for people and that starts with my two kids," he told Walters.

"So I've been trying to stay healthy. I've been getting workouts regularly. I've been eating reasonably well I've got to say... You know, I've been trying to stay fit."

Obama joked regularly on the campaign trail that he's "skinny but tough."

On a swing through Louisiana, Obama was offered more food by a woman who said that he needed to "put a little more meat on his bones." And at a Wisconsin fish fry restaurant, patrons said he needed to eat more.

Still, one psychologist said one shouldn't draw "pathological interpretations" from Obama's health regimen.

"Unlike the rest of us, he doesn't have to work at it at all," said Dr. Michael Lowe, professor of psychology at Drexel University, whose specialty is eating disorders and obesity. "And maybe he wouldn't gain much weight if he didn't watch his weight and exercise a lot.

Healthy or Compulsive?

"As paradoxical as it may seem, some of the healthiest people who exercise the most and watch their diet most carefully are, in fact, lean," he said. "They may be doing that purely for health reasons and not for weight reasons."

The American norm is "so unhealthy" that it's easy to suspect Obama might be over-doing the exercise and calorie counting, said Lowe. Still, he said that more than one hour of working out a day could signal a compulsive aspect.

Other signs of obsession would include mood changes when a workout is missed or self-perceptions about body image are not "on target," he said.

"It's hazardous to draw wide-ranging conclusions about someone's personality, but the number one excuse Americans who don't exercise give is that they are too busy," said Lowe.

"Who could be busier than the president? And yet he found the time," Lowe added. "I'm playing armchair psychologist here, but you can interpret that he is incredibly healthy or he's got a little bit of a problem."

But Nelson, who has watched Obama work out at his Philadelphia-area gym on five occasions, sees a healthy attitude in the next president.

"I sense from him that it's as therapeutic as it is healthy running on the treadmill," he said. "I think he collects his thoughts."

And, said Nelson, Obama sets a good example for other Americans.

"It's definitely a time when fitness has to be on the table," he said. "There are so many health issues now, and it's good to see a president involved in fitness and look so youthful in comparison to others."

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