Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

Janis M. Newton, who has been working full time at the Medical University of South Carolina Wellness Center since 1989, is starting to attract attention nationally with a 12-week program she helped created called the Healthy Charleston Challenge.

Janis Newton, a leader in the Charleston fitness scene for nearly 40 years, learned early in life that being physically active benefits the brain and its emotions as much as it does the body.

In 1965 when she was 14, Newton was enjoying a happy childhood in a close-knit family when tragedy struck. Her 16-year-old brother, Jim, whom she described as "smart, funny and perfect," was killed when a trucker ran a red light and slammed into the car he was in.

"Back then, we didn't have therapy," says Newton. "I didn't have anybody that I could talk to. I couldn't talk to my parents because they had just lost their only son. And friends wanted to act like nothing happened because it was unusual for a young person to die."

So Newton started taking long walks.

Walking turned into running, which at the time was an activity still considered on the fringe.

"I did it because I could think. I could get my head straight. I knew I had to have control over my thoughts and emotions," says Newton. "That's when I realized being physical changes your brain, and that it's good for you. ... That's how my interest in exercise started."

It's all in your head

Newton, who will turn 60 in early May, has been an innovator, often creating fitness plans for people when there were few, if any, templates for them, in various fitness programming roles at the Medical University of South Carolina's Wellness Center.

She took on the challenges of working with patients who had cancer, multiple sclerosis and major injuries, such as a man with no sternum, and started training high school athletes, including Ovie Mughelli, now a Pro Bowl fullback for the Atlanta Falcons.

Early on, she embraced Tae Bo (she says she's the oldest Tae Bo instructor in the U.S.) and TRX suspension training.

Most recently, she pulled together a team of professionals, including MUSC nutritionist

Judith Herrin, psychologist Josh Brown and a cadre of trainers, to create the Healthy Charleston Challenge in an effort to help tackle what's considered by many to be America's No. 1 health problem: the obesity epidemic.

The 12-week Healthy Charleston Challenge, described as a local version of "The Biggest Loser," is in its seventh round in less than four years and is starting to draw attention from around the nation, including as far away as Alaska.

But the basic tenet of Healthy Charleston Challenge is mental, not physical.

"It's all about your mind-set. If you don't get your head straight, you're not getting anything straight," says Newton. "The exercise and nutrition is easy. The hard part is what's in their head. It's their triggers, barriers and mind-set. You have to make people learn to take inventory at the start of every day and make things happen."

Participants leave the program with this message: "There is no finish line."

Growing up in the '60s

Newton's parents, Albert "Woody" and Jean Marx (the family is related to Karl Marx, but Janis disavows his political views), gave her and brother Jim a worldly upbringing.

Albert was an Air Force pilot, flying B-52 bombers during World War II, and moved his family to London when the children were in elementary school.

They traveled around Europe extensively and lived her mother's motto: "Do something interesting and different at least once a month."

After her brother's tragic death in Alabama (where Albert Marx served at the Air War College), the family moved to Washington, D.C., putting Newton in the epicenter of the political upheavals of the late 1960s. Newton relished it.

"I'd go to the Supreme Court, sit and just listen," says Newton, who aspired to be a lawyer. "I was very interested in politics."

She not only was there when Washington burned, but she got a tour of it with a National Guard unit. Her mother often hosted the wives of dignitaries from communist countries, and Newton herself felt intimidated by communism. So much so, she once wrote Nikita Kruschev a letter, which she doubts her father ever mailed.

And while it was hip to be a hippie at the time, Newton described herself as being conservative and pro-military.

Graduating in 1969, Newton was set to go to Penn State, but her father had accepted a job in admissions at Clemson University, and she couldn't bear the thought of being that far away from her parents. So she switched to Clemson. The change would alter the course of her life.

A challenging career

With those interests and that background, Newton seemed destined for something different than a lifetime in physical fitness, which conventionally has been thought of as field for former jocks.

At Clemson, her dual loves of politics and physical activity continued to develop.

Though she had been a cheerleader in high school, she wasn't interested in it at Clemson. A new friend from Union, however, talked her into trying out with her. Newton ended up making the squad, but her friend didn't. And while she didn't stay on the squad all four years, Newton enjoyed the gymnastics involved with cheerleading at college.

She also studied political science as a major, but love soon lured her away from Clemson and down to Charleston, where boyfriend and future husband Nathan Newton (they later divorced) came to get his doctorate in pharmacy. While he was studying, Janis got a job at one of the first health clubs in Charleston.

She admits that she didn't like the health club business at the time because it often seemed more committed to making money than improving health. Still, from 1973 to 1978, she was on the front end of a new industry and immersed herself in health education, getting certification after certification and even attending physiology classes and surgeries at MUSC.

After taking some time to have her first two sons, Zach in 1978 and Seth in 1981, she was lured back to the health club business when East Cooper Health & Fitness opened in 1983. This time, she felt the owners, an orthopedic surgeon and a physical therapist, had the right intentions.

Subsequently, Roper bought the club and MUSC opened the wellness center. For several years, Newton worked for both, though eventually MUSC's Dr. Gilbert Bradham told Newton he wanted her full time. It was a partnership that continues to this day and to which Newton sees no imminent end.

"The wellness center has been wonderful to me because it has given me room to be creative and progressive and to support wellness on a professional level."