Diet and Exercise: Female lawmakers offer the grim reality

Long hours, constant travel and unhealthy snacks pose high hurdles for women lawmakers trying to keep their waistlines trim and their blood pressure low.

Many women in Congress adhere to exercise routines and strict dieting plans. Looking good, after all, is important for those in the public eye.

But temptations for gluttony abound on Capitol Hill. Daily receptions, luncheons, and fatty foods and sweets in the cloakrooms make it hard.

To counter those temptations, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is “an avid race-walker.” She has never had an injury and she says her knees are in “wonderful shape.”

The delegate asked her doctor years ago if her knees would stay intact if she continued to run. His response prompted her to take up race-walking.

“Race-walking has about the same aerobic effect” as running, Norton says.

On weekends, or days when she has more free time, Norton race-walks from her house on 9th Street and East Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and back. The total distance is four miles and takes her “about an hour or so.”

“It’s a pleasant walk,” Norton says. She puts on her earphones and listens to the news.

On weekdays, Norton typically lifts weights inside and walks for 30 minutes. But she says the key to staying in shape is simple: “I never take elevators.”

Many lawmakers, women and men alike, seem to constantly be running around the Hill and multitasking while walking the halls.

“The secret is always do more than one thing at a time,” says Norton, noting that the huge Capitol campus allows her to walk quickly in heels. She plans on purchasing a new pair of shorter heels that will allow her to “go even faster” around the Hill.

Norton tries to eat healthfully and eats six small meals every day, but she admits dieting is not her forte.

“I try mightily to control my diet. I’m not on a constant diet,” Norton admits. She says she likes “this notion of having something every three to four hours.”

She eats protein bars and low-calorie lemon yogurt for her between-meal snacks.

Norton’s breakfast also sounds healthy: “I have fruit in the morning. Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and a banana with some protein. A low-calorie smoothie.”

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) heads the House Appropriations Committee’s legislative branch panel. For the fiscal 2008 spending bill, she included language to investigate the possible extension of hours in the House Fitness Center.

“The Committee believes that the physical and mental health of House staff is important,” the House Appropriations Committee report reads.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) admits that she probably does not get enough exercise. She tries to walk in the evenings, sometimes twice a week, and lifts weights.

“I like to walk rather than run,” Wilson says. It’s her knees that keep her from picking up the pace: “My knees are over 40 [years old].”

And getting exercise at home in New Mexico can be even more difficult.

“Sometimes it’s harder to balance work and family in the district,” Wilson notes. But she recently installed a swimming pool in her backyard and swims laps, increasing the likelihood that she’ll get a workout in.

As for her diet tips, she tries to eat healthy and skips breakfast.

“I’m not a big breakfast eater,” Wilson confesses.

For lunch, Wilson’s menu differs day to day. She grabs a bite to eat at a lunch meeting or ends up “standing in the cloakroom eating tuna sandwiches.”

Other female lawmakers get exercise where they can find it. Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) says she “likes to walk outside in the fresh air.” She takes the stairs whenever she can. “When you’re eating between votes it’s hard to eat appropriately,” she says, noting that when she first came to Congress she lost seven pounds.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) finds her sustenance where she can. For instance, she mentions the healthy fruit and oatmeal that she finds at the weekly prayer breakfast as well as the “balanced breakfast” that she finds at weekly Bible study.

When in D.C., Foxx walks six miles a day — she knows this because she attached a pedometer to her ankle to determine her daily mileage. Although she likes to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, she confesses to a daily ritual of coffee with raspberry flavoring and “a lot of sugar.” She says she’s not a picky eater. “I love chocolate,” she adds.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) uses the Jenny Craig program and recently shed eight pounds.

“[Jenny] cooks for you,” Schakowsky says. She packs her lunches and dinners in her suitcase, but the Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) often wants to see what’s in her baggage.

Like her colleagues, she finds that eating right is difficult on Capitol Hill.

“The hours are weird and the opportunities for eating are at different times,” Schakowsky says. “When I’m really in control, I try to avoid the little food” at receptions. She tries to “stick with veggies” at such gatherings, but notes, “You can fool yourself with the ranch dip.”

Schakowsky works out on an elliptical machine in her house and visits an athletic club on Sundays, but says getting exercise is more difficult in D.C.

“I try to get to the women’s gym here once a week, but it hasn’t been working out,” Schakowsky says.

And she walks a lot, although she notes that her  “feet have been destroyed.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) gets an energy boost when she exercises. Her routine includes lifting weights, using the elliptical machine and doing basic exercises to “a short little program.”

Like Norton, Blackburn is also an avid power-walker.

“I have always been a power-walker and a runner. I’m a very poor runner, a much better power-walker,” she says.

Eating right also is important to Blackburn, a pretty, shapely, sandy-blond woman.

“I’ve always been a firm believer in a good diet — a well balanced diet,” Blackburn says. “I’ve always watched carbs, but as I get older I find myself watching them more. But I have to reserve some calories for chocolate,” she says, smiling.

Chocolate has its own food group in her dietary pyramid.

“Chocolate cookies always find their way into my diet,” she admits, laughing.

A former camp counselor, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) loves to get some fresh air when she works out.

“I like to walk outside. I’m an early riser,” McCollum says. “I live by DuPont [Circle]. There are beautiful places to walk in the neighborhood. I walk as much as possible.”

McCollum tries to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and stay away from fatty fare, but admits dieting is “really hard.” She has one guilty pleasure that she indulges in once a year.

“I allow myself one hot dog [with relish and mustard] a year in the cloakroom,” she says.