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To state workers: get fit or lose your job?

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Among the most notable are Why Weight Kentucky?, a weight-loss program for 235,000 state employees and their dependents, and last year's decision by Travis County, Texas, to offer free bariatric surgery to morbidly obese workers – a decision that has been since rescinded.

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McDonough's plan is different, and controversial, because it is one of the first times in the US that public-service employees, other than firefighters and police officers, would be ordered to exercise as a condition of their employment.

It could also be a tough sell in a state in which a police chief, Paul Goward of Winter Haven, was forced to resign his job this past October for writing a memo that asked the "jelly bellies" in his department to shape up.

Running and push-ups

The Corrections Department proposal demands that officers, regardless of rank or duty, meet minimum fitness requirements, such as completing a mile-and-a-half run in a set time and a certain number of push-ups, according to age group. Those who continually fail to meet standards would face disciplinary action that could result in demotion or dismissal.

McDonough believes that getting tough is the right approach to shake up a department still experiencing the aftereffects of a corruption scandal a year ago. His predecessor, James Crosby, was ousted and pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks, while allegations of steroid abuse among department staff were widespread.

"The two key elements of the job are being able to protect the public and being able to protect each other," McDonough says. "It may mean coming to the aid of a colleague, dashing two or three hundred yards, and, under stress, handling themselves and calming an issue. At any given moment, that might suddenly require agility, strength, and stamina."

The Florida Police Benevolent Association is keen to stress that its opposition is not on health grounds. "Who can be opposed to physical fitness?" asks executive director David Murrell. However, it is concerned that McDonough could be changing the terms of officers' employment without proper consultation.

"It's an issue of fairness," Mr. Murrell says. "We have officers who have worked for the department for 15 or 20 years and never had any physical requirements [upon them]. To have mandatory testing and be fired if they don't measure up is changing the rules."

Murrell offers one option: "If you want to make it voluntary and give them a bonus, we can live with that. It needs positive reinforcement, not negative."

McDonough says he is listening to concerns, but the union was represented on the panel that drew up the criteria, and he believes that 75 to 80 percent of the department's rank and file was in favor.

He aims to have the program running by the middle of the year, and he says he'll be the first to take the fitness test, with the intention of meeting the minimum standard for the youngest age group. McDonough, who is approaching retirement age, was also the first of the department's staff to take a drug test after he introduced mandatory testing a year ago. "It's a question to me of example, of never asking anyone to do what you wouldn't be prepared to do yourself," he says.