Lansing rises to the challenge of getting in shape

When Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero hopped on a scale at the annual State of the City speech in January and revealed that, at 198 pounds, he was clinically obese, it wasn’t just a random moment of public embarrassment. He was launching the new citywide health initiative Metro Lansing Loses a Million, and he was presenting himself as the project’s first sufferer — er, participant.
“(Obesity) is one of our biggest, most identifiable problems,” he told the assembled crowd in Lansing Community College’s Gannon Commons. “(Metro Lansing Loses a Million) is trying to underscore all of the opportunities to get healthy."
As of last week, the initiative had resulted in 1,253 lost pounds, or about one-tenth of 1 percent of the goal. But that’s with only a little over 700 members out of the region’s almost half a million residents, which raises the question: Why aren’t more people partaking in the challenge?
“This month, we’ll have our big kick-off event to really heighten awareness of the project,” says Kelly Zielinski, who’s spearheading the initiative. “After that we expect to see those numbers really shoot up. But it’s important to understand that this isn’t just about losing weight — it’s about setting fitness goals and sticking to them.”
Metro Lansing Loses A Million allows participants to earn points in two ways: through pounds lost or miles exercised. The website,, provides diet and fitness tracking tools as well as nutritional and fitness coaching. It’s free to sign up, and is based on a successful project accomplished by one of the country’s most obese towns.
“When I came up with the idea, I looked out there to see if anyone had done anything like this, and saw that Oklahoma City had,” Zielinski says. “When we set up our project, we used the same website and many of the same ideas. All the tools were in place.”
Zielinski is the co-founder of Lettuce Live Well, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people achieve their health and wellness goals through free information, recipes and nutritional counseling. She had been a business manager for a national pizza chain, and says she had fallen into some unhealthy eating and sedentary habits.
“When I quit my job, I was more interested in being healthy,” she says. “But in trying to understand the why of being healthy, I realized I knew nothing about food and health. There’s nobody offering these basics, either in school or in the professional world. When I talked to my friends and family, I realized that I wasn’t alone. This (information) is is not commonly taught as a proactive measure — usually you’re told by your doctor after you’re already at risk. I saw the need for a nonprofit that would discuss things like the importance of eating real food and try to head some of these problems off.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than one-third of U.S. adults, or about 78.6 million people, are obese. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. Additionally, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion, to say nothing of the millions of lost work hours due to illness and lack of productivity.
It’s this last aspect — how obesity negatively affects the area’s economy — that prompted the YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing to launch an employee health initiative last year.
“The premise is to guide employers and employees by educating them on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle,” says Kelly King, executive director of the YMCA’s Oak Park branch on Lansing’s south side. “(This initiative) has the potential to increase employee productivity and actually lower health care costs. This can really help companies of all sizes.”
Some of the local companies who are working with King and the Y on employee health initiatives are Liberty Coin Service, Barnes Aerospace, and DBI, as well as some local doctor’s offices and dentist’s offices. King said these groups are all offered partially subsidized memberships to the five local Y locations, which have a host of fitness programs and a wide range of exercise equipment. Y representatives will also go into these businesses to talk to employees about setting health goals, conducting nutrition seminars and creating challenges to inspire friendly competition. They’ve also done on-site Zumba and yoga classes, which encourage fitness as well as engagement.
“The challenge for employers is convincing them of the value in employees wellness initiatives in terms of increased productivity, fewer sick days and even insurance breaks,” King says. “The challenge for employees is convincing them they have the time to incorporate good eating and exercise habits into their busy lifestyle. But all the benefits are there. A healthy community is a happy community.”
King offers some ideas for employees stuck behind desks for eight hours or more, such as setting an alarm that will go off every 15 minutes to encourage you to simply stand up and stretch or take a walk around the office.
“Or do some quick squats,” King says. “The idea is to make you conscious of how long you’re sitting so you break up your day. It’s not good to sit that long.”
King says the City of Lansing is one of Y’s larger accounts, so working with Zielinski and Metro Loses a Million worked out well.
“Virg is a big supporter of the Y, and (Metro Lansing Loses a Million) looks like it will be a very good way to reach a lot of new people,” King says. “It’s a perfect partnership.”
Lansing Loses a Million holds its Celebrity Challenge Kick-Off Event at noon on April 22 at Lansing City Market, 325 City Market Drive in downtown Lansing. Also this month is the Bite Size Fit Fair, 4-9 p.m. April 24 at the Lansing Public Media Center, 2500 S. Washington Ave. in Lansing. This event is focused on children, and will include fitness activities, demonstrations and information, followed by a presentation of the childhood obesity documentary “Bite Size.” 


Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains. 
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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