The War On Obesity: Flexing Political Muscle

By showing local, state and federal reps how physical activity can treat obesity, clubs can muster much needed political clout.

What do politics and fitness clubs have to do with each other? Plenty. The strength of a club's membership equals voters to politicians. And attempts to fight obesity and encourage people to become more physically active have recently gained significant momentum in Washington, D.C. By lending their support to these attempts-and encouraging their members to do the same-clubs can help shape policy that will combat obesity.

One need only look at the Physical Education for Progress (PEP) bill to find examples of club operators who have become politically active to promote physical fitness. Although this bill concentrates on bringing physical fitness to schools, it can benefit club operators by creating a new generation of active kids who will grow into the type of adults who join health clubs. It will also help combat the alarming rise in childhood obesity.

U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, along with eight of his colleagues, introduced the Physical Education for Progress bill on May 27. The PEP Act, as it is commonly known, proposes to provide grants and contracts to local educational agencies to enable them to "initiate, expand and improve physical education programs for all kindergarten through 12th grade students." That, in political jargon, spells money-specifically $400,000 over five years.

So what's the catch? Congress! A bill is only a bill when it's voted on in a congressional session by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and then passed to the president for his signature. What happens in between is up to the lobbyists!

Lobbyists? Yes. Those "special interest groups" renting high-priced offices around the Capitol beltway. Some lobbyists prove their points through parties, dinners and sponsoring "fact-finding" trips for members of Congress and their aides to exotic locations. Others merely hover around the Capitol building until they get a meeting with a key member on a issue near and dear to their "group's" bottom line.

And some lobbyists, such as Bob Fredette of Racquet's Edge Health & Community Fitness Centers near Burlington, Vt., are health club operators. His experiences can show other club operators how to lobby.

Fredette is certified to teach physical education, but he chose to work in a club and is now senior club manager. As an active member of the Vermont chapter of the Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AHPERD), Fredette learned about the prospects of the PEP Act from a teacher's association. The teacher's group asked him to go to Washington as a representative of AHPERD to seek support for the PEP Act from Vermont senators. Pumped with enthusiasm and pride, albeit no expert on lobbying Congress, Fredette decided that he would accept the challenge and head to D.C.

After attending training sessions on lobbying Congress offered by the teacher's association, Fredette was able to learn about the background of the bill. He learned about how to pre-arrange meetings with reps, and he was given phone numbers of people to contact in Washington. After making numerous calls, he learned the hard way about the roadblocks to getting an appointment with his senator. "The hardest part is to get a date on their calendar," he says, noting he found the best tactic was to contact a Senator's aide or scheduler.

But Fredette's tenacity paid off. He got an appointment with Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) and went all the way to Washington to meet with him.

Jeffords had been opposed to the PEP Act, citing the money associated with the bill. He needed to be told by a constituent why the money was sorely needed and that it would be an investment in the health of students.

En route to D.C., Fredette read everything else he could on the act and his state's senator. Even at his hotel room, Fredette kept working on his lobbying strategy. "I prepared as much as I could," he says. "I kept writing."

Fredette spent about an hour with Jeffords in his office. The club manager told Jeffords what was going on in Vermont schools with physical education. He told the senator why he felt the funds were necessary for schools. He told him how much P.E. meant for the student's health and their future. "I didn't push him to be a co-sponsor," says Fredette. He just presented the facts to Jeffords.

After his meeting with Jeffords, Fredette learned that he wasn't the only Vermonter lobbying the senator that day. But he was the only representative from a health club. "I was the only one there who wasn't a teacher," he says.

Fredette learned that Vermont teachers had written a letter to Jeffords in advance of their appointment to meet with him. They had told him how "disappointed" they were in his position on the PEP Act. Their meeting with him was crucial to getting him to co-sponsor the bill.

One week later, after the lobbying efforts by Fredette and the teachers, Jeffords came on board as a co-sponsor of the bill. Fredette's contact paid off.

But Jeffords' co-sponsoring the bill is only a first step in a long process of congressional litigation. Sen. Jeffords chairs the senate's committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The PEP Act is sitting in Jeffords' committee awaiting more co-sponsors' signatures. If a total of 51 senators co-sponsor the bill, it should come out of the committee and onto the Senate floor for a debate, then be put to a senate vote.

Tom Scanlon knows all about the long road toward Congress voting. IHRSA is a prime advocate of the PEP Act, and Scanlon has been acting as IHRSA's "representative" in Washington for the past 12 years. He knows the ropes of getting in touch with Congress and how to ask politicians to vote for a bill's passage.

"There's a ground swell [of support] developing for the PEP bill," Scanlon says. "All our chips are on the Senate side," he notes, pointing out that IHRSA's focus is now on senators to co-sponsor the bill.

At press time, 35 senators had signed on as co-sponsors of the PEP Act. A similar bill has been introduced in the House with 27 members on board as co-sponsors at deadline.

Scanlon has seen proposed bills die in congressional committees. But he's confident that the PEP Act will get out of Jeffords' committee and onto the Senate floor.

"What we're trying to do is earmark the bill [for passage]," Scanlon says. "Earmarking" a bill in Congress involves allocating funds for a bill's specific progam(s). Since support for the PEP Act is growing steadily, Scanlon believes that this year holds the best chance for the bill to be passed.

Scanlon isn't the only IHRSA advocate following the PEP Act's progress in Congress, nor is the PEP Act the only bill that has IHRSA's attention. Jay Ablondi, IHRSA's director of government relations, says that IHRSA monitors all federal and state activity for pending legislation that should concern clubs. IHRSA uses an online service to search for political topics related to health clubs, then Ablondi's office conducts researches and decides whether to let members know about the findings.

One way IHRSA lets clubs know about its findings is through its Web site: For example, the site currently has a link to the progress of the PEP Act in the legislature along with a brief synopsis of the bill and IHRSA's position on its potential impact on the industry.

Ablondi suggests that club owners contact their respective reps on the PEP Act. "The average politician doesn't understand the industry," he says.

That's why club operators must educate politicians about how exercise can combat obesity. Contact politicians and point out some of the startling data concerning the lack of physical activity and the growth of the obese population. For example, when talking to a politician about the PEP Act, refer to the CDC findings which indicate that inactivity and poor diet have resulted in almost doubling the percentage of overweight children in the past 20 years. In fact, one in five children is considered to be obese, according to the CDC.

To support the PEP Act and other fitness-related legislation, you must lobby. Get the facts. Organize efforts with other area clubs and members. Get to know who represents the club's district on the local school board (in most states and districts, school board members are elected into office). Find out who knows what on the board about physical education and its pending legislation. Write to or meet with state and federal officials. And, if you haven't done so recently, register to vote! The future of the club industry may very well depend on your political prowess!

As professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, Marion Nestle has been advocating good nutrition and the "effects of obesity on chronic disease's high medical, psychological, and social costs" for 25 years.

In a report published by the U.S. Public Health Services in January, and co-authored by the nutrition activist Michael F. Jacobson, Nestle calls traditional obesity prevention-that is, focusing on changing the behavior of obese individuals-"woefully inadequate." The authors call for national leadership to "ensure the participation of health officials and researchers, educators and legislators," thereby creating a public health campaign to fight obesity that has a greater chance of success.

A participant in the recent National Nutrition Summit-which brought together leaders from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Human Services (HHS)-Nestle knew all too well going into the meeting that obesity had been addressed by other nutrition experts in studies and publications since 1952. She also knew that the odds of a group of federal bureaucrats agreeing on any firm policy to battle obesity-let alone implementing an effective plan-were minimal.

But Nestle has not given up hope on the obesity crisis. She points out that leaders at the CDC and USDA are "very involved" in the battle over obesity. And she believes that the CDC will be the federal agency "by default" to take a leadership position on targeting obesity prevention, "since nobody at HHS is taking health leadership, and USDA has too many conflicts of interest."

In their positions, Nestle and Jacobson had the opportunity to review the U.S. Public Health Service's objectives for reducing obesity. Citing the PHS's former objectives and other numerous studies, the authors offer alternative strategies to combat the nation's obesity "epidemic."

As previously mentioned, Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is a nutrition lobbyist. Jacobson has attacked the food guidelines that were announced at National Nutrition Summit. "The government caved in to pressure from junk-food makers and downplayed its scientific advisory committee's advice to recommend that people 'limit' their sugar intake," he says.

Jacobson takes nutrition very seriously. As director of the CSPI, he advocates taxing "junk food" to raise funds to combat the growing rate of obesity.

His colleague, Carol Tucker Foreman, is also a nutrition and food advocate-a lobbyist. She is the director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America. She also was assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services from 1977 to 1981 at the USDA.

In Foreman's former role with the USDA, she learned the tactics of federal bureaucracy and took that knowledge with her to her advocate position.

Respect for Foreman in the Washington hierarchy served her well as she gave the closing address to the plenary session of the National Nutrition Summit on May 31. In her speech, Foreman challenged all who attended the nutrition summit to "consider a requirement that all new laws and regulation include an assessment of their impact on diet and physical activity," adding that "advocates for change must organize to and secure resources for a major communication program."

Between Nestle, Jacobson and Foreman, officials and politicians in Washington will have to stay on their toes to implement a national nutrition policy that keeps American's healthy.


Download these PDF-format reports from the Web:

Nelson's & Jacobson's obesity report at

Foreman's closing address at

CDC's physical actitivy initiative at

Diet Guidelines 2000 at

Get the facts on the PEP Act from

Learn how to lobby at or

Brush up on lobbying laws at or

Find out how to write a letter about the PEP Act at or

E-mail your rep a letter about the importance of physical education via

Learn how to meet officals at

Find out where where your representative stands at (the PEP Act is bill number S 1159)

Register to vote online at or

Learn how to be an informed voter at

Get local politicians info at or at

Learn more on lobbying at

Learn the terms of congressional action at

Discuss or research politics, or file a petition at or at

Get contacts from "the Hill" at

Suggested Articles:

Planet Fitness has reopened 800 locations since May 1, reporting overall average membership levels have remained relatively consistent.

Club Pilates is set to open 21 new locations in June and has studios in five other locations set to open in states mandating gyms remain closed.

The 24 Hour Fitness executive team has been busy on two fronts: implementing new operating protocols to reopen clubs and reportedly looking at how bes