04/18/2014 17:00 EDT | Updated 06/18/2014 05:59 EDT

MPs switch suits to promote national fitness

It can be challenge enough to get politicians of different stripes to congregate happily in the same room.

So how about sharing the same pool in their bathing suits — totally out of their usual element of suits and talking points, sporting goggles and flippers.

"Were all a bunch of guys and girls who try to have fun," says Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, just out of the pool, in his swimsuit, before getting read to head to work.

The group of politicians at this downtown Ottawa pool are part of a fitness program for MPs.

It involves a mix of swimming or jogging or, for some, both.

NDP MP Peter Stoffer is perfecting his back flip and enjoying the camaraderie.

"This is an example of the fun we have to show the folks back home to keep fit and keep active, but at the same time in our professional lives we've become good friends "

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has had two hip replacements. She has shed weight and is gratified to squeeze in the me-time.

"I totally grew up as one of those kids that no one wanted to pick on their team. So I was kind of averse, I had a mental block, that I could be fit or athletic at all.

"I've really been able to make this part of my life. I come to the pool three times a week — this group is totally fun and then I get more tips from Pierre of what I should be doing."

Chance meeting brought idea

Pierre is Pierre Lafontaine, the former Olympic coach for Swimming Canada. He has been volunteering to coach MPs because he believes the benefits will eventually trickle down to the Canadians they serve.

The idea of coaching politicians came in a chance meeting five years ago with Conservative MP John Weston, who is a triathlete.

Weston laughs thinking about that first meeting between two strangers.

"Pierre and I randomly ended up seated beside each other on a flight from Vancouver to Ottawa and passengers must have gotten fed up with the chatter about health and fitness."

But the two men were revved up with ideas. They decided Lafontaine would help MPs at the pool. Soon Weston also lined up a running coach to guide those MPs who wanted to jog. Phil Marsh of the Running Room believes jogging with MPs will have positive effects off the Hill.

"If they can spread the message to be more active and fit, you also can tie that into Olympics, you can tie that into health care, you can tie that into the economy, mental health, everything," March said.

Liberal Geoff Regan runs at least three times a week. "You feel better about your work, you feel better about yourself. It's a fun thing to do."

The fitness ideas gradually evolved into the notion of a National Health and Fitness Day, a day to be proclaimed by municipalities across the country the first Saturday in June. On that day, cities would promote physical fitness through activities.

Private member's bills

Weston outlined the concept in a private member's bill, then lured Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine into the mix.

Greene Raine is an Olympic legend, a gold-medal skier considered Canada's female athlete of the 20th century. She lives and breathes fitness. She jumped on board and has her own bill in the Senate to create a national fitness day.

Both legislators say the bill that passes first will supplant the other.

"We're asking every municipality to sign on and do something special to promote health and fitness in their municipality. whatever they want to do," she said.

Chubby the 'new normal'?

Greene Raine bemoans the fact that one in three children in Canada is either overweight or obese.

"The long-term goal is for Canada to be the healthiest, fittest nation in the world. We have to target that. Why should we target having all our kids get chubby and fat?

"Chubby is the new normal? That's crazy."

Adds Weston, "We're not high-performance athletes, but if we could inspire Canadians to get more active then it would be good for economy good for the country good for every individual Canadian."

So far, they have 86 municipalities planning to proclaim and participate in National Health and Fitness Day. They hope to reach 300, and they already have the backing of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Back at the pool, NDP MP Fin Donnelly is getting tips from the coach. He says staying fit is absolutely helpful. "I think I'm sharper, I'm more alert, I'm more focused, I'm more able to do long days." 

Liberal Kirsty Duncan is also one of the sponsors for the bid for a National Health and Fitness Day.  

"We get to know each other as people," she said "and it changes the tone of Parliament, and more importantly it changes Parliament."

New Democrat Peter Stoffer takes a minute to muse aloud on this scenario.

"Can you imagine Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair all swimming together? This country would work a lot better, it would."