Mississippi Legislature Sheds 1,400 Pounds Of Fat

- The state of Mississippi has the distinction of having the highest rate of obesity in the nation, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Paul LaCoste, a Mississippi native and personal trainer, decided that was not a title he wanted for his home state. So, LaCoste started a campaign called "Fit 4 Change." It's a bipartisan effort to get the leaders of the Mississippi state legislature moving and fit. Host Michel Martin talks with LaCoste and team captains — State Senator Terry Burton, a Republican, and State Representative Steve Holland, a Democrat, about the health challenge.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now a very different story about politics and health. For some years now, Mississippi has had the distinction of being the state with the highest rate of obesity in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Mississippi native and personal trainer Paul LaCoste decided he wanted his home state to lose that title and those extra pounds. But where to start? How about at the top, or rather the Capitol.

LaCoste recently started Fit 4 Change. That's a bipartisan effort to get the leaders of the Mississippi legislature moving. So, as part of NPR's ongoing coverage of obesity issues, we're joined now by trainer Paul LaCoste. He's with us on the phone from Jackson.

Also joining us are Fit 4 Change team captains, State Senator Terry Burton, a Republican, is with us at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, and State Representative Steve Holland, a Democrat, is with us from Tupelo, Mississippi, his office. Thank you all so much for joining us.

State Senator TERRY BURTON (Republican, Mississippi): Pleasure to be here.

Mr. PAUL LaCOSTE (Founder, Fit for Change): Thank you.

State Representative STEVE HOLLAND (Democrat, Mississippi): Thank you.

MARTIN: Paul, I'm going to start with you. I understand that you were playing professional football. You had worked for one of the leading sporting goods companies, but you actually moved back to Mississippi, in part, because you wanted to work on issues like this around fitness and obesity. How did you get the idea for this program?

Mr. LaCOSTE: Well, naturally I'm very competitive and I come from a very large family. I'm the youngest of four boys and I am from Mississippi. I was born in Oxford and raised predominantly here in Jackson. And I've always wanted to see Mississippi doing great things. In my opinion, this is the next big thing that we as Mississippians and we as the United States of America, we have to conquer. We have to beat obesity. We have to educate ourselves on what we're putting in our bodies and we have to take our personal health very seriously.

Obviously you see what we're fighting over nationally with our health care issues that we have in our country right now. And I feel like if everyone would take their own health seriously and devote discipline and get serious about this problem, we can fix it.

MARTIN: So, Senator Burton, how did he get you involved in this?

State State Sen. BURTON: Well, I received a phone call wanting me to meet this gentleman named Paul LaCoste and so Angela Ladner with the Psychiatric Association, one of the sponsors of the exercise program, introduced me to Paul. Paul and I immediately hit it off and decided, yes, this is something we need to do.

We are number one in obesity and related illnesses in this state. And when I say related illnesses, we're talking about diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease. And so we thought that this would be a good idea to challenge the House and the House challenge the governor's office and everybody challenge each other. So, we had a great program and put it all together and Representative Holland is a wonderful friend and a great guy over in the House, and I look forward to working with him. So, we did. We put it all together and here we are, 12 weeks later, a lot of good work has been done.

MARTIN: Twelve weeks. Okay, I want to hear more about that, but Representative Holland, tell me about why you decided to get involved. And is it just to show off your special T-shirt?

State Rep. HOLLAND: Oh no, although it's precious. That T-shirt is fabulous and I wear it with pride now. But my experience with obesity started a little early with myself. In May of 2008, went into full, congestive heart failure at 350 pounds, approximately. And so, when I went into congestive heart failure, the doctor said, it's just real simple, lose weight or be dead by Christmas. It's going to be that simple.

So, I got busy. And I was privileged to have band surgery on my stomach, which was the tool I needed to get my mind and my body in order. And by the time I got to Coach LaCoste, or by the time he came to me with the idea, I had already dropped about 90 pounds by that time, and had been exercising. But I wanted a more regimented discipline, and that's what that brought. And I wanted the camaraderie of all of our people, as Senator Burton said, in the arena together challenging each other as well as challenging yourself.

And I'll tell you, it was an exercise in beauty is what it was. And now I'm about 24 pounds even lighter and not only that, but in perfect shape at 55.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about your special T-shirt.

State Rep. HOLLAND: Oh, I love my T-shirt. It's got a nice quote on the back. And...

MARTIN: Which is?

State Rep. HOLLAND: You know, I don't have it here. Coach, tell her...

Mr. LACOSTE: True change takes place when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. And I believe that's where Mississippi has been for quite some time. Our pain is so great, it doesn't matter what we have to go through to get where we need to be as a state, that we're willing to do whatever it is. And our state leaders have really done a wonderful job. And our training through Paul LaCoste Sports is not easy, it's intense. And they know that my passion is there and that I'm not going to leave them ever.

And we're going to do this again for many, many years. You know, you want to run to be a state legislator in the state of Mississippi, this is going to be one thing that goes along with it. You're going to have to come to Jackson and while you're in session, lead by example.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that, and Representative Holland, I also hear, I don't know, maybe it's a different T-shirt, that you have one that says - butt naked at the capitol.

State Rep. HOLLAND: Oh yeah. That's the one you were wanting... Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Rep. HOLLAND: I got in that about the first week because it just even after that excruciating first week, it was just one of the best feelings that you can have going through this horrendous exercise regimen. And so I just said to the House team, you know, this is like being butt naked at the capitol, and it stuck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I won't ask you to demonstrate that's okay.

State Rep. HOLLAND: And - hogs and heifers, butt naked at the capitol.

MARTIN: But, you know, I wanted to ask - a lot of people these days work in these jobs that are kind of 24/7. So I wanted to ask each of the lawmakers, Senator Burton, you want to start first? How do you fit it into your schedule? Because this is a job that can go from morning to night. So, how do you work it in?

State Sen. BURTON: Well, that's correct. There's always something to take your attention. We have early morning breakfast meetings. We have late evening dinner meetings. We have a full day of work. But for me it was important to go ahead and set aside an hour for myself and give the other 23 to the state, and that's what I decided I was going to do. I was going to get up at 5:00 in the morning and work out with members of the House and members of the Senate and members of the governor's office staff and others and try to set an example for the people of Mississippi.

I just considered this a part of legislative duty to set an example for the state and say, we're not only talking about that and passing laws that might affect you so that you can lose weight and do things better, but we're going to show you we're going to do it, too.

MARTIN: What about you, Representative Holland? I'm sure having a health crisis helped focus your attention. But, still, that might be why you got that way to begin with is that you weren't taking time for yourself.

State Rep. HOLLAND: Oh yeah. And, you know, I mean, when you're in the most obese state in the nation like we are, as Senator Burton said, it's just time to lead by example. And it didn't take Coach LaCoste five minutes to sell me on the deal. I was already doing my own form of exercise, which wasn't bad, but I just needed structure. So, I started talking to colleagues immediately and running the flag up the pole and I was afraid no one would salute, and was quite shocked myself at how many said, yes, we're very interested.

And then when I said, well, you got two times you can work out, 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., I mean, people went ballistic at first and said, are you kidding me? But they came anyway. They had faith. We did a good enough sales job, and once they got into it, it not only started changing us immediately physically, but it started changing us mentally and emotionally. And we meshed, the camaraderie was so absolutely fabulous that no one dared leave. I mean, it was like you were going to miss something.

State Sen. BURTON: That's true.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, thank you. Well, congratulations. Paul, I understand that collectively the lawmakers have lost 1,400 pounds total, as a group.

Mr. LACOSTE: Yep. Don't forget the one pound. I like to give them that, 1,401.

MARTIN: And one, okay, give them that one. Okay. I don't who got that one.

State Sen. BURTON: That one was mine.

MARTIN: That was yours, senator?

State Sen. BURTON: That was mine.

MARTIN: Okay. So, Paul, before we let you go, I understand that there are other groups that you would like to see take on this challenge as a group. What do you have in mind?

Mr. LACOSTE: My next big goal is to go after our teachers here in the state of Mississippi and take them through the same program that we just took our state leaders through and help them. A lot of our children obviously spend the majority of their day facing a teacher that is up there educating and motivating our youth. And I want to help them lead by example as well. I am not going to back down. I'm going to continue to pursue this and it's through the hard work of our leaders like Representative Holland and Senator Burton that well continue to take our state to the next level.

And I'm so very proud to call them my friends and for me to be known as their coach. And they have inspired me to pursue what God has put in my heart even stronger.

MARTIN: Personal trainer Paul...

State Rep. HOLLAND: Michel?

MARTIN: Go ahead, yes sir?

State Rep. HOLLAND: Representative Holland. Then, aside from Mississippi, we're even taking it to a further level, to municipalities, to counties to get things going much like what we've done. But now, my challenge is even larger than that. It is a national health challenge. And I would, this very moment, challenge 49 other states to get with it. We've got to take this nation back health-wise.

MARTIN: All right. That was Democratic Representative Steve Holland of Mississippi joining us from his office in Tupelo. He, along with Republican Senator Terry Burton, are working with Coach Paul LaCoste in a bipartisan effort to get fit. They call their program Fit for Change. And they all joined us from Mississippi. I thank you all for speaking with us, and congratulations on your success so far and go luck.

State Sen. BURTON: Thank you.

State Rep. HOLLAND: Why, thank you so much. And we love National Public Radio.

Mr. LACOSTE: That's it. Thank you.

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