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Bad food, poor sleep: Why the federal election is a health hazard

Navdeep Bains, federal Liberal candidate for the riding of Mississauga - Brampton South, talking to volunteer Dan Deyan (left) in Brampton.

Tim Fraser/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

Surrounded by a dozen women at a seniors' home in his riding of Mississauga-Brampton South, Navdeep Bains is discussing typical election issues - paying down the deficit, tax cuts, hospital wait times - when one of the women tells the Liberal incumbent he's looking good.

He smiles and pats his stomach. "So far, so good," he replies, adding that two weeks into the campaign he's lost four pounds. "It's a very expensive diet," he says of running in a federal election.

While only a little more than a month long, the election campaign currently under way in Canada can take a serious toll on the health of candidates.

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"The demands are huge. A campaign is essentially running a marathon at sprint speed, with bad food and little sleep. It's very damaging to your health," says Keith Martin, a Liberal MP who has been on six federal campaigns.

A candidate who isn't finding time to eat regular meals and is out doing a lot of door-knocking can "easily" lose 10 pounds on the campaign trail, while those who walk less and binge on takeout food can put on "several pounds in that short period of time," says Dr. Martin, a physician who spent close to two decades practising emergency and family medicine.

"The toxic combination of bad food, little sleep, less exercise and the psychological stress of being on the campaign is a pressure cooker of all things bad," he says.

Lee Richardson, a Conservative MP who is running for re-election in Calgary, knows the strains a campaign can exert on a candidate's body. He hits the gym for an hour every morning before heading to his campaign office.

"I don't think I could do this unless I had gotten onto such a program," he says.

As demanding as the campaign trail can be on candidates' health, getting to Parliament Hill can be worse. Mr. Richardson recalls one colleague who packed on the pounds once he arrived in Ottawa.

"It's a very sedentary environment. It's a lot of dinners, receptions, crazy hours so that you're over-hungry when you get there and you run in and eat too much," he says. "You don't get time for exercise. I know guys who have gained 50 pounds in a term."

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Mr. Bains says he gained 30 pounds in his first two years in Ottawa after being elected in 2004. He now goes to the gym three to four times a week, though he rarely has time during an election: knocking on doors has to suffice as a source of exercise.

Going to the gym, especially during a campaign, is "almost a necessity," Mr. Richardson says, adding that it helps reduce stress.

The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats may disagree on how to run the country, but they do have one thing in common - none of the parties provides candidates with any formal advice on how to stay healthy during the campaign.

"It's a real challenge to be able to eat healthfully," says Hedy Fry, a Liberal MP in Vancouver and a former president of the Vancouver and British Columbia medical associations.

Like many candidates, Dr. Fry says the main challenge of a campaign is getting enough sleep.

"We tend to get home sometimes at midnight or later," she says. "During the campaign on a good night I can get six [hours of sleep] On a bad night I can get four. Fortunately, as a physician I know how to sit down and sleep for 10 minutes. Cat-napping is good. I learned how to do that when I was an intern and a resident."

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Carolyn Bennett, a Liberal incumbent in Toronto who was a family physician before she was elected to Parliament, held an informal conference call in the fall with several candidates to talk about the risks of burnout and the importance of maintaining a healthy diet.

Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, was brought in on the call to talk about "all kinds of stuff around stress," Dr. Bennett says. "And then, of course, I end up as the lowly family physician having some pretty strong views on making sure you eat and how grumpy you can be when you all of a sudden realize you haven't had breakfast or lunch."

Dr. Bennett keeps her campaign office stacked with juice and almonds so that harried staffers can "graze" when hungry, she says.

Fast food, of course, is a staple for many candidates and their campaign staff.

"We have lots of pizza at our campaign office. Pizza and subs," Mr. Bains says.

At the seniors' home, Mr. Bains helps himself to a cup of coffee but forgoes the plate of cookies. "I consciously make an effort to avoid it when I can," he says of all the unhealthy food thrown at a candidate.

The relatively short duration of a federal campaign means it won't pose any significant long-term health problems such as hypertension or high cholesterol unless the candidates keep up their bad habits, Dr. Martin says.

But in all likelihood candidates will crash when the campaign is over.

"The cumulative wear and tear on your immune system … makes you vulnerable to falling ill," he says. "Many of us do fall ill after the stress subsides somewhat after a campaign. ...You're running on adrenalin during the campaign and that tides you over. But when the adrenalin stops, then many people fall ill."

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