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There’s a downside to living in a city renowned for its cuisine. After awhile, all those shrimp, grits, and bowls of creamy she crab soup can start to add up, leaving their mark in the form of blubber around our waistline.
Although Charleston Joe Riley would never advocate abandoning our city’s signature dishes, he is hoping that a legacy of his final term in office will be to leave the Lowcountry a healthier place. To that end, he spearheaded the launch of Lighten Up Charleston, a website (www.lightenupcharleston.org) and community initiative that aims to shed 100,000 cumulative pounds from the city’s collective paunch in the year between the program’s launch last March and the 2013 Cooper River Bridge Run.
“We all know this country is facing an epidemic of obesity, a major factor in poor health in America,” said Riley at the program’s launch. “As a community, this is an effort to support each other in our common goal of a healthier, more active lifestyle.”
Nationwide, nearly a third of the population is clinically obese, while twice that number qualifies as overweight. More than half of Charleston’s citizens — 60 percent — are overweight, including as much as 43 percent of school-age children, according to a study by MUSC.
When one considers that obesity leads to more illness and premature death than any other condition or factor in the world, those local numbers are downright staggering. From heart disease to cancer to diabetes, carrying more pounds than your body is intended to handle is literally a slow recipe for death.
Unfortunately, with 74 percent of Charleston residents reporting a lower-than-suggested intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s no wonder that we’re literally stewing in our own fat.
Obesity isn’t just about exercise, a point that the Lighten Up program strives to drive home with its ‘Top 5 Ways to Get Healthy.’ Eating more fresh produce and physical activity sit atop the list, but portion control, reducing sugary beverage consumption, and keeping track of goals and progress carry equal weight.
“Charleston should be up there with Seattle or San Francisco among the healthiest cities in the country,” says Dr. Susan Johnson, the director of MUSC’s Office of Health Promotion and a Lighten Up committee leader. “We have all these resources but we haven’t been able to harness them. The Lighten Up campaign brings together all of the things that can make us a really healthy community.”
Designed to function as both a source of information, a motivator, and a tracking tool, the Lighten Up website lets users log-in and enter their weight loss goals and daily physical activity. The site’s 1433 current members include 87 groups, which function as a friendly, competitive way to track lost pounds and motivate fellow participants to stay focused.
So far, Roper St. Francis Healthcare’s 367 participating members lead the pack, shedding 2,394 pounds in the six months since the program began. Roper even initiated its own ‘Weight Wipeout’ program last summer that fed into Lighten Up’s data.
“I decided to participate because I need to be healthy. So many diseases follow people who have unhealthy lifestyles, and I did not want that to happen to me,” says Melissa Blair, a lab worker at St. Francis Hospital and participant in the challenge. “The program has helped me push to the next level, mentally, in weight loss. The challenge pushed me beyond what I thought I could do.”
Blair has already shed 40 pounds, with no intentions of slowing down. Her group’s peers include church and school groups and the City of Charleston staff, who have collectively lost 1,176 pounds.
Although the city’s total loss since March is at just 9,544 pounds of the 100,000- pound goal, Dr. Johnson says that the true purpose isn’t about reaching any specific number.
“People like competition, so we set a goal, but that’s barely scratching the surface,” she explains. “The goal goes way beyond next year. Here in the South, we get such a bad rap for being unhealthy, but I think Charleston has an opportunity to be one of the most active communities in the country.”
Johnson sees the platform that Lighten Up has created as an ongoing tool to inspire and promote weight-loss competitions between businesses and groups, as well as getting the word out about healthy events. The site’s calendar already serves as a go-to resource to find the time and locations of farmer’s markets, film screenings, and local 5Ks and fun runs.
When workplace culture promotes green and healthy lifestyles, it quickly rubs off onto the individuals and their interactions with family at home, says Johnson, who recently launched an employee wellness program at the MUSC Children’s Hospital. She emphasizes that Lighten Up is all about providing support and making a healthy lifestyle fun. The site includes resources like ‘the best active video games,’ quizzes to help determine a healthy portion control at meals, and promotions for outreach endeavors like the annual Bike 2 Work week.
In his promotions for the program, Mayor Riley acknowledges that losing weight can be a lonely affair. But with Charleston’s abundance of parks, bike paths, and generally comfortable outdoor weather year-round, there’s little excuse not to team up with a partner or group and motivate each other to adopt a healthier, active lifestyle.
“You can hear how passionate about this he is when he speaks,” says Johnson of the mayor. “Lighten Up is something he believes in and wants to leave behind for the city.”