May 28, 2001 -- Mayor John Street of Philadelphia emerges from the basement of his red brick rowhouse dressed in a sweat-soaked red pullover sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, his glasses dangling from a holder looped around his neck. It's the crack of dawn, and the mayor has just finished his daily workout.
"I do a lot of exercise," he says, which puts it mildly. He hits his home gym five days a week, for two hours at a time. In his basement he has a treadmill, a stationary bike, a leg press, a Universal Gym system, and free weights. As part of his routine, he rotates through four lower body exercises and some arm and chest reps. But he enjoys running and biking the most.
Before injuring his toe last year, Street ran an average of 20 miles a week and cycled another 40 miles. He currently pedals 100 miles a week. He's run four marathons and regularly takes part in bike rides, like the 68-mile American Cancer Society ride.
It's a pattern of committed daily exercise he started 33 years ago -- when he was in early 20s and weighed more than 260 pounds at 5' 9" tall.
"I was as big as a house," Mayor Street remembers. "I couldn't fit into a size 52 suit. I was too big, and I knew it. I was worried about what would happen in 25 years. I believed that I would continue to gain weight as I got older, and either the quality of my life would diminish or I would die. I didn't think I could survive the way I wanted to carrying all that weight."
So he decided to do something about it and began what would be a lifelong exercise and healthy eating program. Back in the days when people who exercised and watched their diets were derided as "health nuts," long before anyone ever heard of the famous food pyramid, Street was working out and cutting fried foods from his menu, replacing them with baked, broiled, or steamed versions.
"I probably eat six to 12 pieces of fruit a day," says the mayor, who does not partake in any of Philadelphia's famous foods -- cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, and Tastykakes. "I eat no red meat, pork, or shellfish. My three favorite fish are salmon, swordfish, and tuna. I went from 260 pounds to 180 pounds. That's a lot of weight."
Today the mayor weighs in at 195 pounds. The extra poundage came 13 years ago when he was elected to the Philadelphia City Council, and the long hours demanded by the job convinced him to add some weight to his frame.
"I think there is no more fit person in this city," he claimed shortly after being elected mayor in 2000. "I drink a quart of water when I get up. I have developed an approach to health and fitness that works for me."
The results say he's right. He looks years younger than his chronological age of 58, and his compact body is solid but trim.
As mayor, Street's days haven't gotten any shorter or easier. He's up each morning at 4:00, a throwback to his childhood when he lived on a farm and had to rise early to do chores. By 4:30, he's down in the basement, sweating.
Unlike his predecessor in office, who worked out at a health club near City Hall, Street says he prefers the quiet, uninterrupted solitude of his home.
"It takes too much time for me to do that -- and people want to talk to you," he says. " When I get ready to work out, I want to work out. I try to do it during times when it is convenient. Getting up and doing it first thing in the morning helps me with my day."
Exercise also helps Street handle the pressures that come with running one of America's largest cities.
"Exercise is just an absolute stress-buster," he says. "I couldn't imagine what life would be like if I didn't exercise. I think most people totally underestimate the ravages of stress."
City of Brotherly Love Handles?
Getting the word out on the benefits of exercise has become something of a cause for the Philadelphia mayor. Shortly after Men's Fitness magazine named the City of Brotherly Love the fattest in the nation, Street chimed in with a solution.
"I've always known that we in this city have a propensity to be overweight and out of shape," he says. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. "I think it's a crisis."
To combat the problem, Street has appointed a fitness czar to help Philadelphians lose their flab --and he's initiated a program called 76 Tons in 76 Days, a joint effort with the Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball team that challenges city residents to lose a collective 76 tons of weight in just under 11 weeks.
Philadelphians are being encouraged to join groups that weigh in and diet together. So far more than 20,000 people have signed up. The official weigh-in will take place July 3.
"What we're trying to do here is say that there is a better way," Street says. "We're not telling people you can't go to restaurants -- I love restaurants. We're not telling people you can't have dessert -- I love dessert. We're not telling people to run marathons every year. Our message is just to exercise."
For Street the answer can be as simple as cutting down on fatty foods, eating more fruits and vegetables, and taking a daily walk.
"I just believe we can do better," he says. "The results of the modest changes in lifestyle we advocate will yield huge benefits for the city and the people who enroll in the programs. Folks know that this is the right thing to do. If we persist and make it fun, we're going to get tens of thousands of people involved in a healthy lifestyle."
Which is certainly something for the rest of overweight America to chew on.
Bob Calandra is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several magazines including People and Life. He lives in Glenside, Penn.
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