One day this summer, Rep. Fred Upton was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue when he happened upon White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
They are political foes. Upton, a Republican from Michigan, chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. McDonough is the right hand of Democratic presidential power.
Upton went for the jugular: He asked McDonough how many steps he had taken that day. They held up their wrists, their step totals displayed on their Nike FuelBands and Fitbits.
“I was winning,” said Upton, whose one-day record is nearly 18,000 steps. “So that’s a good thing.”
This is the new Washington rat race. In a town that hits DefCon 1 on just about any issue, lawmakers, administration officials, congressional staffers, diplomats and bureaucrats have found something healthy and bipartisan to compete over: the number of steps they walk each day. In the era of political gridlock, at least they’re trying to move physically.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is obsessed with his Jawbone Up band and regularly checks in with 10 other band wearers in his office: “Hey, you getting in your steps?” Hill staffers have formed Facebook groups to share — and gloat about — their step totals. The State Department recently held a five-week walking competition. Team names included Agony of De Feet and Holy Walkamolies.
“The type of people you find on Capitol Hill are very competitive by nature,” said Alexa Marrero, a senior aide to Upton who competes with him. (He accuses her of cheating by moving to the Hill so she could walk to work.) “You have a bunch of Type A personalities in jobs prone to keeping you behind a desk all day, so there are a lot of people who have found this as a fun way to get up.”
The competitions are changing official Washington behavior in some corners. Elected officials insist on parking far away for meetings to get in their 10,000 steps a day, the total often recommended by fitness experts and dietitians. Legislative correspondents — they are underdogs in competitions because they answer e-mails all day — are finding ways to be at their desks less. Boehner’s staff even holds meetings in the Capitol Rotunda while walking in circles, which is not meant to be a metaphor for Washington politics.
“It’s much more pleasant to walk around this beautiful building than sit in some bland conference room,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, who uses a Fitbit.
Political Washington has entered the realm of the Quantified Self. Smartphone apps and sensors such as the Fitbit can track steps, miles, calories burned, heart rate and even sleep patterns. Users link up on Web sites or apps to see how many steps their friends or colleagues have taken. Trash talking ensues.
“You can send happy faces or sad faces,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a devoted step tracker. “That sort of stuff.”
How many step trackers there are in Washington is impossible to know, but there are some hints about the city’s collective walking capacity. Jawbone has stats showing its D.C. users average about 8,262 steps a day, which is less than U.S. leaders New York at 8,704 steps and Boston at 8,471. D.C. beats slender and tony Miami, which somehow manages only 6,734 steps per day.
Tracking steps is still in its early days. Of the 60 percent of U.S. adults who say they track their weight, diet or fitness, just 9 percent use an app or online tool to keep up with stats, according to the Pew Research Center. Analysts project that number will grow considerably next year with the introduction of Apple’s new watch. Unveiled last week, the watch will track fitness and, as with many Apple products, could turn a new idea mainstream.
Studies show that using pedometers and other devices to track activity can improve health by motivating positive behaviors. When competition or teamwork is involved, walkers are less likely to relegate their tracking devices to a drawer, in the same way that many people turn their treadmills into expensive clothes hangers, experts say.
In a competitive sense, Washington — a city filled with people who abhor losing — is perfect for a bit of political Fitbit fisticuffs. Those who tout their performance can prompt others to jump in.
This summer, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) began posting his walking results on Instagram from an iPhone app called Moves. He notched an all-time record on July 23: 4.9 miles, or about 10,000 steps.
Staffers in the office of Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) saw his posts and downloaded the app. Samantha Slater, Israel’s communications director, became obsessed soon after. To avoid missing out on recorded steps, she takes her phone to the bathroom, despite the water hazards for expensive electronics. On vacation in France, she sent her Moves-using colleague Kyle Hill an e-mail boasting about the 15.1 miles she walked in one day.
In some offices, tracking is a behavior that comes from the top. Stacey McClure, Boozman’s state director, said she began using a tracking bracelet after the senator did.
“If it’s important to the boss,” McClure said, “it’s important to the staff.”
She quickly found out how important it was when, instead of dropping him off at an event, he asked her to park far away.
“It’s 98 degrees out, I have heels on, but yes, let’s go park far away,” McClure recalls thinking. “Great idea.”
But she adjusted well. While working in Arkansas, she often monitors her colleagues in Washington online and, when appropriate, sends messages such as: “Were you off all week? Were you sick all week? Did you break a leg?”
Meanwhile, Boozman said other senators have asked about his bracelet. He has encouraged them to (ahem) follow in his footsteps, but he needs to be careful about who he convinces. “I need to figure out who I can beat first,” he said. “I need to find a lazy senator or two.”
Not everyone in Congress has embraced the walkathon. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently complained about the privacy aspects of devices such as the Fitbit. His staff did not respond to a question about whether he or his staff use the devices, but it’s not as if Schumer is opposed to walking briskly. As former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) once observed, “the most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera.”
There is at least one downside to walking and governing. Boozman and staffers have found that going home to their districts is disastrous for their step counts. In Washington, the business of government requires physical, if not ideological, movement. Officials walk to meetings, to the floor for votes, and down the street for lunch. Back home, they drive around, sometimes for eight hours a day.
“I’ll only do a thousand steps back home,” Boozman said. “And I’m still tired. So it really wakes you up. We’re really blessed in Washington because of the way things are laid out. You walk more. You can take the steps more.”
Some lower-level staffers have taken to just competing with themselves.
Sarah Czufin, a 23-year-old legislative correspondent for Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), uses a Jawbone Up that vibrates once an hour to remind her to collect her steps. Making sure she walks enough is important, she said, because “my job takes place at my desk” and after work is filled with receptions featuring free, often fried, appetizers.
She will do just about anything to hit her numbers, including walking back and forth down a hallway during a phone interview. (That netted her 673 steps.)
“Can you hear my heels clicking?” Czufin asked.