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In Capitol Community, a Push to Beat the Toil of the Session

Every other year, Texas legislators race to get the state's business done in just 140 days — an exhaustive process known for taking a toll on lawmakers' health. But efforts are under way to get the Capitol community to rethink how to stay healthy during the session.

Capitol nurse practitioner Tim Flynn examines a walk-in patient. The Capitol Health Services office is open to anyone on the grounds for walk-in visits.

For lawmakers and workers in state government and politics, the biennial legislative session can turn into a seven-day-a-week, 20-hour-a-day grind.

The schedule took a toll on Kara Johnson, a lobbyist, in the 2011 session. After a couple of months visiting lawmakers, writing proposals and following meetings and dozens of bills, the stress got to her.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“And I woke up that morning with a weird pain in my side, and I kept ignoring it and saying, 'No, I’ve got this committee hearing, no, I’ve got these one-pagers I need to put together," Johnson said. "And sure enough, by midnight, I walked through the door in my house and I couldn’t move anymore. And I was rushed to the emergency room.”

Johnson came back to work a week later. But things would change. After the session, she became a certified health coach to learn what she needed to do to stay healthy. And this month she launched to share tips about staying healthy during the stress-inducing 140-day session — tips that still fit into the run-and-gun action of a legislative session, like getting enough sleep.

“What I said is, during this time of session when we actually can get that sleep, get it now," she said. "Because literally in one month you’re not going to be able to have that luxury.”

Making healthy choices during session has long been a goal of state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen. His father, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., has had two heart attacks.

“That really opened up my eyes to say, you know, I have a young family, and while I’m up here, I need to do the best I can to not only maintain, but I actually try to better my health while I’m here," Lucio said.

So in 2007, Lucio formed the Capitol Wellness Club.

“We set up basketball games. We try to organize a member football game. We do runs. We’ve brought in yoga instructors. We’ve brought in CrossFit instructors," Lucio said. "And I’m trying to get feedback from the members right now as to what would be enjoyable to them from an exercise stand point so that they’d be willing to participate.”

Lucio has noticed that a number of lawmakers have come back to Austin in much better shape than they were in when they left town in 2011. And instead of hiding from him during exercise time, they’re joining in.

Johnson said there are ways to keep fit even when lawmakers and others can’t make it to the gym. There are hundreds of steps at the Capitol to use instead of the elevator. And in coming weeks, she’s going to make suggestions on what to eat at the Capitol cafeteria.

“They’re gonna give me all of the meals that you can choose that are a much healthier option," she said. "And then I’m even going to start talking to local restaurants."

Johnson said she will also look at menus outside the Capitol.

"You know for folks who do these meetings at, like, the Roaring Fork — what can you eat at the Roaring Fork that is actually going to be good for you," she said.

But the session is only 140 days long. Just how much can anyone improve their health in that time? John Brown of Walgreens was under the dome this week pushing another session fitness program. He said one can accomplish quite a lot.

“Lose quite a bit of weight. You can improve your blood pressure," Brown said. "For people who have diabetes, help control their diabetes. There’s a lot of different things you can do at about 90 days and on."

After all, doesn't it always seem to take 90 days before anything gets accomplished during a legislative session?

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