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As Duties Weigh Obama Down, His Faith in Fitness Only Increases

President-elect Barack Obama greets supporters after playing a round of golf on Christmas Eve in Kailua, Hawaii.
President-elect Barack Obama greets supporters after playing a round of golf on Christmas Eve in Kailua, Hawaii. (Lawrence Jackson - AP)

For the small group of reporters tasked with following Obama's every move, his fitness has become a running joke repeated in the stories they file. They sit at McDonald's while he exercises in Hawaii. They eat calorie-rich scones while he sweats at Regents Park. One reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, filing his report about one of the president-elect's gym trips last month, noted: "While Mr. Obama worked at maintaining his lithe look, your pear-shaped pooler spent quality time at a local coffee shop."

Obama still suffers from one vice -- smoking -- although he has worked hard to quit since he started the presidential campaign. He's down from three or four cigarettes each day to what he terms the occasional "slip."

When Obama visited the White House in November, he toured the gym with President Bush and talked about exercise, said his wife, Michelle. It is one interest the two men share. Bush equipped Air Force One with a stationary bicycle, and he spends weekends biking with friends -- with anyone and everyone, really -- at Camp David. He has often said that exercise has helped him cope with the pressures of the job.

Several presidents have found creative ways to stay in shape while in the White House. John Quincy Adams swam in the Potomac, Theodore Roosevelt boxed and Herbert Hoover invented his own sport -- an awkward combination of volleyball and tennis -- to play at 7 each morning. Harry S. Truman installed a horseshoe pit. Bill Clinton liked to jog and then head for breakfast at McDonald's.

Obama, who favors a post-workout snack of a protein bar and organic iced tea, has already disclosed some of his own plans for his new home. He wants to build a full basketball court where he can hold games on the White House grounds, and to maintain his usual routine of exercising at least six days a week.

It's a schedule he started as a 22-year-old student at Columbia University in New York, and it immediately transformed him. In his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama said he was a casual drug user and an underachiever until he decided to start running three miles each day. He stopped staying out late, fasted on Sundays and became a voracious reader, spending most of his time alone in his apartment reading classic literature and philosophical texts.

Physical fitness yielded mental fitness, Obama decided, and the two concepts have been married in his mind ever since.

"It's always been a priority in his daily routine," said Christopher Lu, a marathon runner who worked as Obama's legislative director in the Senate and was named Cabinet secretary last week. "I think it's an example of how disciplined he is. It's one of the things that really keeps him balanced."

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