We are used to political leaders playing the fitness card, but, as the photographs taken during his holiday in Hawaii just before Christmas show, Obama is in a different league to the tennis-playing Tony Blair, and he makes Vladimir Putin's bare-chested fishing shots look embarrassing. Wesley Doyle, fitness editor of Men's Heath magazine, which recently featured the 47-year-old Obama on its cover, says: "He shows that in a largely youth-obsessed society, an older man can, and should, be interested in keeping in shape. And if you look after yourself in terms of physical fitness, you will feel better, look better and be a more powerful person." Or, in Obama's case, the most powerful man in the western world.
But the new president's honed physique has taken dedication. Once a man hits 40, the risk of heart disease, cancer and strokes, as well as conditions such as arthritis rise; a decade later a man can be losing as much as 15 per cent of muscle mass per year. Men need to exercise more than ever at this stage of their lives, but many – in the middle of their careers and with families to care for – feel they do not have time.
Yet they are put to shame by Obama. Since the election in November, he has continued to work out with an intensity that betrays almost an addiction. Every day, without fail at 7.30am, the new president has been driven in a motorcade to a gym at Regents Park near his Chicago home for a 45-minute workout – usually in his trademark black Sox cap and white Asics trainers. The first thing he did when he arrived in Hawaii was head for the running machine.
This is no new habit, however. As Obama recounts in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he started exercising seriously at the age of 22, when he decided to stop dabbling with drugs and alcohol. He began by running three miles a day, and has done so ever since. During his Senate campaign in 2004, and also during the Presidential race, his staff ensured that a workout was built into his daily schedule, even if, while criss-crossing the US last year, it meant they had to ring gyms on his campaign stops to ask them to alter hours to accommodate the candidate's workout. He also has regular basketball sessions with staff and friends and has said he wants to build a basketball court at the White House.
Matthew Ransom, who has been voted Best UK Personal Trainer of the Year three times, believes the president-elect has achieved his low body fat level through regular resistance training, using both weight and cardiovascular machines. "He's definitely well-toned and you only get that through resistance training when you work at between 65 and 75 per cent of your maximum heart rate," Ransom says. "Any more and you don't burn the fat off so effectively, although you will stay fit."
"The main reason I do it is to clear my head and relieve me of stress," Obama told Men's Health. "My blood pressure is pretty low and I tend to be a healthy eater. Most of my workouts have to come before my day starts. There's always a trade-off between sleep and working out. Usually I get in about 45 minutes, six days a week. I'll lift [weights] one day, do cardio the next. I wish I was getting a 90-minute workout."
Certainly Obama looks like he is preparing for the immense pressure that comes with his new position. Dr Michael Roizen, an American doctor who has assessed the medical records of presidents as far back as Theodore Roosevelt, believes one year in the White House equals two in the rest of the world when it comes to stress. He cites Reagan as an example. "When Reagan came into office [aged 69], he stood up absolutely straight," says Roizen. "When he left office, he was hunched over. The age signs on his face were there."
Obama has become renowned for his almost preternatural calm as displayed at every stage of the presidential campaign. And he does have one other advantage: his father's African background. Kenya, the home of the late Barack Obama Snr, produces some of the best endurance athletes in the world. It is a complex and debatable subject, but some sports scientists believe that up to 75 per cent of performance can be attributed to genetic background
Obama also eats healthily. He's a big fan of broccoli (unlike at least one of his predecessors, George Bush Snr). He snacks on raw nuts and protein bars after a workout and drinks organic berry tea. He does have some vices – caramel chocolates, the odd drink still and, famously, the occasional "bummed" cigarette.
So what lessons can middle-aged males here learn from Obama? The biggest challenge is to have an interest in fitness. While 49 per cent of men aged 19 to 24 take the recommended minimum exercise of 30 minutes, five days a week, the level drops to 34 per cent of men between 35 and 49, and 24 per cent between 50 and 64.
Most experts advise a minimum of three Obama-style mixed cardio/weights training sessions a week for an hour to maintain a high degree of fitness. Doyle says older men need to spend longer, tougher hours in the gym than younger men. "They just have to work a bit harder at it," he says. What about the reality of ageing, those joints that ache a little more every year? "Compensate for weak knees by strengthening your leg muscles," says Ransom. "Or find a low-impact exercise that suits you, like swimming or the cross-trainer."
And, as Obama knows, a proper fitness regime only works with a balanced, junk-food free diet with fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly foods rich in fibre, folic acid and calcium. Carb-rich diets are also good for replenishing energy after workouts, but need to be moderated to avoid weight-gain. Vitamin C, for general health, and particularly glucosamine, for joint health, are excellent supplements. While health experts agree moderate drinking is relatively harmless, Obama's "bummed" cigarettes are a no-no: "The only safe number is zero,'' according to the British Medical Association.
Peter Baker, chief executive of the charity Men's Health Forum, believes Obama is setting a powerful example. "He is showing how a middle-aged man is taking part in physical activity, and of course it sends out a positive message," he says. "It should make other men – and politicians – think about these vital issues.'' But he adds: "Many older men have been put off by the whole six-pack image of younger males in the gym – it sets them up to fail.''
Which makes Obama's arrival on the world stage all the more significant. But therein may lie the problem: women are comparatively comfortable about aspiring to be like their glamorous role models. "I had a 69-year-old woman tell me recently: 'I want Madonna's arms','' says Ransom. Most middle-aged men, however, would cringe at the thought of saying that. But how many will now look enviously at pictures of the toned, muscular 47-year-old leader the western world, and say not "I want his power", but "How can I look like that?"
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