We’ve all heard the saying that sport and politics don’t mix. A quick little reminder of the 1968 Black Power salute, sporting embargoes on apartheid South Africa, bombings of the Sri Lankan cricket team bus and even the US-Soviet “ping-pong diplomacy,” and most of us will concede that sport and politics do in fact mix

But what about politics and sport? After Tony Abbott’s 14-hour ironman triumph on Sunday, Minister for Health Nicola Roxon had the nerve to suggest Abbott’s fitness regime was eroding his time for policy formation. Our health minister seems to be suggesting that a good politician is all work and no play.

She couldn’t be more wrong.

What Abbott achieved on Sunday by finishing that ironman is phenomenal. He swam 3.8km, biked 180km and ran 42.2km. For me, that demonstrates incredible guts, courage, determination, persistence, resilience, strength of character, strength of mind and … fitness! These qualities are exactly the qualities you look for in a strong leader, and transferable to the political domain.

Sport at all levels — not just ironman triathlons — teaches invaluable personal strengths. Through my years as an athlete, I can honestly say that I have good time management and I can work as a team. I can take criticism, and I learn fast. I can concentrate for extended periods of time, and I can apply myself to a task at hand. I can problem-solve under pressure, and I have mechanisms for dealing with adversity. Sure, all this helps row a boat fast, but it is also useful in the “real” world.

Roxon’s belief that taking the time to take part in sport is time lost on policy formation is misconceived. Keeping fit is not a waste of time. Studies show workplace productivity is on average 4% higher in workplaces that promote physical activity. Active employees are proven to take less sick days, and work more efficiently.

There is also irony in Roxon wanting to fix the hospital system — if a few more people got off their bums and followed Abbott’s lead, we would have much less demand for hospitals. Physical inactivity increases the risk of heart disease, type two diabetes, depression and high blood pressure. In fact, physical inactivity directly cost the Australian health care system $1.5 billion in 2006-07, and with recent surveys showing 21% of the population to be obese and 54% overweight, this cost is on the rise.

Sure, politics is a tough gig, but I want my representatives to get their priorities straight. Keeping fit should be a high priority, politician or not.

Indeed, with the ABS recording 72% of Australians to be sedentary or have low exercise levels, the more pollies setting the right example the better. Fortunately, we do have some shining light pollies.

Victorian Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu founded the yearly Pier to Perignon swim and, like Victorian government minister Peter Batchelor and former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, is a regular on the open water swimming circuit. He even challenged me to a “push-up challenge” one morning during his daily splash at Hawthorn pool — and won!

Then there’s ACT Senator Kate Lundy who can be spotted paddling her rowing boat around Lake Burley Griffin, and Victorian minister Tim Holding with his passion for bush walking all too dramatically brought into the public eye when he went missing on Mt Feathertop last year.

NSW Premier Kristina Kenneally rides her bike (albeit under security escort to navigate Sydney’s streets) to work, while federal member for Macarthur Pat Farmer ran a lazy 14,500km around Australia to celebrate our centenary of federation.

Farmer is not alone in elite sportspeople making the transition to politics. Dual Olympic gold medallist Sebastian Coe was a British conservative party parliamentarian, while the late cyclist Hubert Opperman also transitioned into the political sphere. Aerial skiier Kirstie Marshall, winner of more than 40 World Cup medals, is a Victorian member of parliament, as is Carlton legend Justin Madden. John Howard even went the other way, transferring from prime minister with a healthy power-walking habit, to International Cricket Council president-in-waiting.

Having fit and healthy politicians in the public eye is a step towards encouraging a healthier nation. We don’t all need to don budgy smugglers and complete an ironman triathlon, but politicians should prioritise, not ridicule, sport and fitness. Politics and sport must mix.

Kim Crow writes for Back Page Lead, a new sports opinion site at backpagelead.com.au.