CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Almost 500 people in Southeast Tennessee are beginning the year nearly 2 tons lighter.
Wellness Steps of Bradley County recorded a 3,500 pound weight loss from its free exercise and nutrition programs that have gotten state and national attention since it began two years ago.
A free health fair offering basic screenings and a chance to enroll in Wellness Steps will be held Jan. 17 at Bradley Square Mall.
On Tuesday evening, as a drenching rain flooded streets and closed schools, dozens of determined people showed up at the gym at Keith Street Ministries. As people walked the gym perimeter and stretched for the exercise routine to come, Wellness Steps of Bradley County organizer Maurice Saliba explained the program he started in January, 2007.
"After 25 years in the (health and fitness) business I realized we are not making an impact on obesity," Mr. Saliba said. "We have more health clubs coming up all the time. More diet programs coming up all the time, but yet nothing is being done."
The first year 300 people lost 4,400 pounds and 21 percent of the program members came off medications, he said.
"Most of those were diabetics," he said. "That seems to be the big concern on the state level because diabetics have multiple problems that are so costly."
Those results prompted state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, to mention the program to Gov. Phil Bredesen, he said.
"The governor asked the health department to give me a call," Mr. Saliba said. Now he and others across the state are part of a state obesity task force.
Wellness Steps of Bradley County got its first state funding in the past year. Davidson and Knox counties will have similar Wellness Steps programs this year, he said.
"My sugar runs real high," said Bryan Liner, who was at the gym Tuesday. His wife spotted an announcement for an earlier fair and got them both involved. His regular blood sugar count has been cut in half, he said.
"I got a letter from my doctor this week and he said, 'Please keep your exercise up," Mr. Liner said.
Jim Hodgson, Bradley County's chief deputy, said he and his wife look forward to the sessions. The whole crew at the department's garage has joined him now, he said.
"My motivation? I am a 55-year-old man who wants to be around at 80," he said.
"A program like this is more motivating for me because I have a certain time and place rather than freelance and go to the gym on my own, or maybe not."
Barbara Couch has three generations of her family with her.
"I'm just maintaining right now," she said after weighing in. "It's Christmas and I know not to try to diet during Christmas. But this has been good for all of us."
Gene Van Deventer, 84 and his wife were already walking for exercise when they joined Wellness Steps in August.
"I had a lot of problems with my knees and stuff but we feel better now," he said.
As he took the stage to lead the exercises, Mr. Saliba said that even in tough economic times, people should exercise and eat properly even though fresh food is more expensive than processed food.
"This is not about looking good in a bikini or anything like that," he said. "It's about a healthy life."