How to join

Interested in participating in the next session of the Healthy Charleston Challenge (which starts in January)? Call Janis Newton at 792 4141 or go to musc.edu/hsc.

After 10 sessions in the past five years, the nearly 700 total participants in the Healthy Charleston Challenge will celebrate a milestone this week: surpassing the 20,000-pounds-lost mark.

Think about that a second. That's 10 tons of weight, or almost as much weight as an empty tractor-trailer truck or full-size school bus.

But for Janis Newton, the force behind the challenge at the Medical University of South Carolina Wellness Center, the success of the home-grown program is not measured in the pounds lost.

“It's in what they've gained,” says Newton. “They've changed the way they are living their lives. And as a result, many of them have managed to get off medications they were taking. ... When I look at 20,000 (pounds lost), it represents all the numbers that have changed for the better.”

Changing habits

As the United States struggles with health care costs, it's an accomplishment we should all cheer about. It's simple. A leaner populace means a healthier one, which equates to less money spent on health care.

Newton estimates that the average person saves $25-$50 a month from prescription drugs they no longer have to buy, most notably for high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

And if the numbers don't impress you, the Healthy Charleston Challenge recently was selected by Club Industry as the Best Behavior Modification Program in the nation. Newton will accept the award at a ceremony in Las Vegas next month.

The title of that award gets at the root of what HCC goes for: comprehensive behavior modification.

The challenge, which lasts 12 weeks and includes weekly weigh-ins and a team weight loss competition, is not just a workout or weight loss program. It pinpoints the fact that many Americans who can't shed the weight have an addiction to food that is similar in nature to narcotics.

“We're strict,” says Newton. “We treat the program like drug and alcohol rehabilitation.”

Nutrition counseling — learning to make smart food choices and creating a strong defense against bad ones — is a cornerstone of the program, as is daily exercise, three team workouts per week, the weekly weigh-ins and contest, and resulting camaraderie.

The sustained success is proven, Newton says, because 67 percent have continued to maintain weight loss or continued it a year after their session has ended.

For many, it's a life-changing experience that causes participants to return as mentors or speakers. Newton says a whopping 82 percent continue to have some connection to the challenge after completing a session.

From diets to lifestyle

Among them is Stephanie Robinson, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in West Ashley. Robinson took part in Healthy Charleston Challenge last fall and is a mentor for the current session.

“Before I got involved with Healthy Charleston Challenge, I tried every diet in the book. I'd lose 10, 15 or 20 pounds and then gain it all back, plus five,” says Robinson. “Healthy Charleston Challenge pulled everything together and made it stick.”

She noted that it taught her to stop “mindless eating,” such as in front of the TV or by stopping at fast-food restaurants on a routine basis.

While Robinson declined to give her weight now, she says she lost 60 pounds and improved her health so much that her doctor took her off medications for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Her doctor used to consider her a heart attack risk, but no longer does.

Robinson rediscovered a love of dancing by taking a Zumba class at the suggestion of her Healthy Charleston Challenge mentor and got certified to teach it earlier this year.

“I would have never stepped in that first Zumba class without HCC because I would have never thought I could keep up,” says Robinson. “There's no going back to the way I was. This (living a healthy lifestyle) is something I'll do the rest of my life, in part, because I don't believe there's an end to it or an actual 'after' shot (photo).”

The next 20,000

And yet for the nutrition counselors and trainers involved with Healthy Charleston Challenge, their work will not end when the 10th session ends Nov. 15.

Applications for the winter 2013 session, which starts Jan. 10, are expected to be posted on www.musc.edu/hsc sometime this week.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postandcourier.com.