Mississippi Slims Down, Starting At The Top

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Mississippi is the most obese state in the nation. That's not something top-ranking state officials like to boast about, so they've decided to take matters into their own hands. A group of state lawmakers has begun an effort to shed hundreds of pounds. It's hoped their weight loss will spur others on.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Some elected officials in Mississippi are working up a sweat. Its part of an effort to shape up and model healthier living, in a state that leads the nation in both adult and child obesity.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Carl Gibson reports.

CARL GIBSON: At 6:00 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, when many of their constituents were still asleep, dozens of Mississippi lawmakers and state government employees were at the gym working out.

(Soundbite of exercise class)

GIBSON: Instructors barked commands at the 60 people during a martial arts aerobics session at the Millsaps College gymnasium.

Unidentified Man: Get down. I didn't say stand up.

GIBSON: Four days a week, these lawmakers meet before the sun rises. They workout in the weight room, run a mile and do aerobics. As he wipes sweat from his brow, Representative Mark Formby says so far they're lost a total of 1,300 pounds since January.

State Representative MARK FORMBY (Republican, Mississippi): You know, the coaches are great - they're real mean, you know, but they're great. That was probably the hardest thing for a bunch of legislators to get used to is somebody screaming in your face.

GIBSON: Last year, House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland tipped the scales at 348 pounds. He realized he needed to make some changes. He underwent bariatric surgery and is eating healthier and working out during these early morning sessions. Now, he weighs 223 pounds.

State Representative STEVE HOLLAND (Democrat, Mississippi, Chairman, Public Health Committee): I am beating my alarm clock up now by 20 to 30 minutes, it's so habitual to me. Dont matter how rough I lived the night before, how much I partied, no matter what I drink, carried forthwith, by gosh, I'm going to be at this program in the morning 'cause I am committed like a hog. I'm committed to the program.

GIBSON: Mississippi statistics show 40 percent of all children are either overweight or obese. But it's not all bad news. Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama came to Jackson to support several state health initiatives, including Let's Go Walking, Mississippi. Governor Haley Barbour has championed the program, but Mrs. Obama still challenged the overweight governor to lead by example.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: We all have to check in on the governor, make sure that -'cause he's promised he's going to get moving.

GIBSON: The first lady visited a school that has a new walking trail and learned about an effort to replace deep fryers with conventional steam ovens. Health activists say these are all good steps, but James Zervios with the Obesity Action Coalition says it takes permanent commitments to health and wellness to keep weight off.

Mr. JAMES ZERVIOS (Obesity Action Coalition): There has to be lifestyle and behavioral changes. You go back into your regular lifestyle again and you're not doing the portion sizes, you're not getting your exercise in and you start to see the weight come back.

GIBSON: And that can be difficult in a place like Mississippi. Its traditional Southern cuisine and lack of sidewalks and bike paths don't help. Still, Representative Formby says he'd also like to see public schools with more stringent physical education programs and people eating healthier at home.

Rep. FORMBY: Most of us learned to eat at our mama's kitchen table, where we were taught to eat everything on our plate. And if we ate everything on our plate, we could have seconds. And if we ate all our seconds, we could have dessert. And we washed it all down with, you know, super sweet tea - which I still enjoy and I still cheating on that. But, yeah, so the training has got to start early in life.

(Soundbite of exercise class)

GIBSON: Back at the gymnasium after an hour-long workout, lawmakers high-five each other. They hope to lose another 200 pounds before the end of the state legislative session next weekend.

For NPR News, I'm Carl Gibson in Jackson, Mississippi.

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