Op-Ed: exercising my rights

Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary, reflects on keeping the peace this election season.

If there ever was an election cycle that seemed omnipresent, this is it. It seems that everyone has an opinion about this election, and the political rancor takes a toll on all of us, especially political news analysts.

We're told that exercise can help combat stress, but is it any match for the strain of 2016? Dana Perino, former White House press secretary to George W. Bush, TV news analyst and best-selling author, tells us how she copes.

Election years are like dog years—one is equal to seven. This year, I can feel the aging process accelerating. I see it in my face, feel it in my heart and lungs. I count the weeks until the election (20 more to go!).

I've spent my career in politics and media, and the election cycle never fails to grab me, with both excitement and exhaustion.

In some ways, 2016 is the same as other elections. But this year is different. Everything bad about election years is worse this time around.

The pace is quicker—the media cycles scream by. A story can be hot for six hours and then melt into ether with a shrug of the shoulders. The intensity is stronger, partly because of social media and mobile devices, so that you can never get away from it. The emotions are more raw; the bullying, the language, the tempers cause everything to flare at once. If you're a target, you feel abused. If you're an aggressor, you feed off of that anger and power. The downward spiral takes a toll on mind, body, and soul.

On campaigns, both the candidates and the press fall into bad habits. Eating is sporadic, quick, and often indulgent. Pizza is faster than a salad when you're on the road and on a deadline. Soda and coffee are the easiest ways to get some energy. Before you know it, you’ve had five in a day and your hands are as shaky as your thoughts. Fitness is put on hold (running to catch a flight or to chase down a candidate doesn't count). And sleep is constantly interrupted by breaking news or thoughts that pop into the head in the middle of the night.

There's only one thing in the world that can help. In a year when everyone thinks about how they’ll be voting, I’ve added something to my to-do list. I call it Exercising My Rights.

When I worked for President George W. Bush as his press secretary, I remember then-Secretary of State Condi Rice saying in an interview that she couldn't think straight if she didn't exercise. I exercised, too, but it was pretty lame. Reading my clips and emailing reporters while I was on my home elliptical didn't exactly work up a sweat. And fretting all day long didn’t help either. I had bad eating habits, such as not consuming much at all, and then substituting with massive amounts of green tea as I tried to kick my diet soda habit. If life gave me a do-over, I’d have taken better care of my health when I was at the White House. Thankfully, I’ve learned my lesson.

This election is different. For the last two years, I’ve been committed to my personal trainer Katie, at Equinox, as well as a Pilates practice and body work to help manage years of bad habits and stress that have built up rocks in my upper back. Five days a week, and I never cancel, unless my work demands it. I protect that time on my schedule as if my life depended on it. In a way, it does. I don't think I'd survive this election without that time to build muscles and burn off some of that negative energy. And when I'm with my trainer, I never check my phone. That would be rude!

Carving out that time has helped me in more ways than physically. I can work out the stress of a political debate and then have a clearer mind to think about what’s going on, and to come up with the best way for me to express my views in ways that will make sense and maybe make people think (or laugh). I’ve found I think of my best lines when I’m moving, and I’ve been known to step to the side of the commuter traffic so that I can type in a note to myself. Plus, as I feel stronger physically, I don’t have added stress about when I’m going to work out and how I’m going to catch back up with my fitness goals after the election.

It took several election cycles for me to catch on, but I think I've finally found a way to get through it without self-destructive behavior. Exercising my rights—and my responsibility—to take care of myself is the best way to survive 2016. (Oh, and I pray. A lot.)