HELENA -- Sen. Mike Sprague, R-Billings, squints as he lights a cigarette and smiles at the irony. These stolen smoking breaks behind the Capital are about the healthiest thing he does nowadays.

"This is the only stand up period I get," Sprague said, who just finished tallying how many hours a day he spends sitting. Eleven hours. Eleven hours of sitting in a 12-hour day.

Brutal.

"Your mind can only absorb that which your butt can endure," Sprague said.

Walk 10 feet into the Montana Capital and you will hear someone, somewhere refer to the ongoing 90-day lawmaking blitz as a "belt-tightening session." As in "We're just going to have to tighten our belts and make do." As in budget cuts and surviving with less money.

But on a personal level, legislators' belts are being loosened all over Helena. While it might be lean times for state agencies, for the lawmakers themselves this session, like most, is a time of furious physical inactivity, eating out, snacking and packing on pounds. An informal Lee Newspaper survey revealed many lawmakers say they typically gain between five and 15 pounds each session, with this being no exception.

"Look at the before and after pictures of the session," said Rep. Bill Wilson, D-Great Falls. "There's a huge difference."

Wilson blames it on sugary snacks, and nods toward a table at the far end of the House floor veritably bursting with licorice, hard candies and other sweets. Little dishes of candy sit on most lawmakers' desks. Little dishes of chocolates are all over the building. The folks at the information desk in the basement have them. Secretaries have them.

"People just bring them to you," said Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Hamilton. "People bake you things, cookies. It's very generous, but you have to watch it."

Rep. Brad Newman, D-Butte, said it's not just snacks. Just about everything about Montana's lawmaking process is unhealthy. You work almost all the time. Most lawmakers come to the Capital at around 7 a.m., if not earlier. Most leave around 6 or 7 p.m., although 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. isn't uncommon, either. When the crunch time hits, like in the last days, some lawmakers will be at the Capital until midnight or later.

And for most of that time, Sprague said, they will be sitting down.

"It's a very unhealthy process," said veteran lawmaker Rep. Eve Franklin, D-Great Falls, a nursing educator. "It's unhealthy for your physical body, your physiological being and your mental health."

Many lawmakers talked about the unique role food plays in lawmaking. Early in the session, groups representing everything from youth clubs to industry organizations host group dinners many nights a week, plying legislators with endless trips to the buffet table.

Politicking is played over lunch and finished off over dinner, Newman said.

"Food is ever-present," he said. "We ought to have recess. If we could have a quick power walk, we'd be a lot better off."

People eat to pass the time in boring hearings, he said. Or, said Sen. Linda Nelson, D-Medicine Lake, they eat to salve the emotional wounds of losing political fights.

"You want to treat yourself," she said.

Even if you don't pack on pounds, said Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, you lose muscle tone.

"You get so far out of shape," said Tester, a farmer, "that when you have to do some real work it about kills you. It's a problem."

Some lawmakers actively fight the flab. Thomas said he manages to make it to the gym between three and five mornings a week, arriving a little after 5:30 a.m. Others, like Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and Rep. George Golie, D-Great Falls, are also gym regulars.

Many, like Nelson, steal walks outside. Wilson, who brought his little black puppy to Helena, is often seen playing fetch with his dog on the Capital lawn.

The physical rigors are not altogether a bad thing.

Franklin said she thinks the complete lack of any normal routines and the shared experience of sleep deprivation, weight gain and sitting together for hours and hours, actually helps forge a kind of group empathy among legislators, even those with seemingly nothing else in common.

"We're like combat veterans or shipwreck survivors," she said.

A group bonding takes place when people from divergent pasts are thrown together for a very intense experience.

Tester also sees the positive.

"The handy part about gaining weight is, now I've got this shelf on my stomach where I can put my drinks," he said.

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