Challenging Obesity in Black Community

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

The goal is to shed 50 million pounds. The target is the black community, which suffers disproportionately from obesity and its unhealthy side effects.

The 50 Million Pound Challenge, a national campaign aimed at encouraging weight loss and healthy living, comes to Prince George's County today with a 5K race, health screenings, entertainment and a fitness fair at Bowie State University.

The program, which has enlisted more than 690,000 people nationwide who have lost almost 3 million pounds since April 2007, provides a diet, an exercise plan and advice for changing unhealthy habits.

"Poor lifestyle choices and cultural entrenchments have, unfortunately, made African Americans extremely vulnerable to a wide range of diseases that are in many cases life-threatening," said Ian Smith, the doctor and author who began the program. "What we are trying to do is not only to get people to lose weight, but to get them to take a better look at the choices that are directly impacting their physical and spiritual health."

Smith, the author of five books on fitness and healthy eating, will speak at this morning's event and give a presentation at halftime of the fifth annual Prince George's County Classic football game, which pits the Bowie State Bulldogs against the Lincoln University Lions.

The morning event, which starts at 8, will also feature entertainment by DJ Biz Markie; a health and wellness fair presented by the county's health department; and free screenings for high blood pressure and other problems.

Kimberly James, 29, a fitness instructor in Bowie, will help demonstrate how to improve health.

James was a cash-strapped University of Maryland student when she got serious about fitness. She was working part time at a car dealership and heard about a fitness contest among her co-workers: For an entry fee of $100, 34 employees vied for the $3,400 pot. She worked out daily and reduced her fat and carbohydrate intake. Ninety days and 28 pounds later, she lost the contest -- she came in third -- but had developed a healthier lifestyle.

"A lot of people take health for granted," said James, owner of KJ Total Fitness. "A lot of people think about losing weight and getting fit because they worry about how they look. They don't think as much about the fact that eating right and exercising can help them live longer."

Smith, a contributor to "The View" on ABC, "Men's Health" magazine and VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club," said he started the challenge to provide a "national platform" for healthier living. The program is open to everyone but aimed at black people.

Two in three adults and 17 percent of children are considered overweight, according to the challenge's Web site, For black people, the numbers are higher, with two in three men, four in five women and one in five children weighing too much.

Teenagers, particularly black youths, are increasingly developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and early signs of heart disease. Poor diet, lack of exercise and inadequate medical guidance were cited as factors.

Mia Jazo-Harris, a spokesman for State Farm insurance, which sponsors the program, said participants can find a 30-day diet plan and activity tracker on the challenge Web site. It also includes a journal and blog. "Being overweight is so prevalent now, it has become the norm," Jazo-Harris said. "Being able to have a conversation with someone who knows what you are going through when you are trying to lose weight is helpful. It helps people to stay positive."

James, the local fitness instructor, said some people are scared off by the prices of exercise classes.

"I'll tell them that it's much less than you would spend on a purse or to get your hair done, and this could save your life," she said. "People have to start connecting fitness with living longer instead of looking better."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company