Healtier people - eat a smart diet, get moving, live well.

Three times a year, the MUSC Wellness Center offers people the opportunity to get help redefining themselves as healthier people. The Healthy Charleston Challenge offers 12-week sessions in January and September and a mini-session of only six weeks starting in May. With a team of professionals to help, it is intended for those who are 25 pounds or more overweight and who truly want to commit to a healthier lifestyle to lessen their risk of chronic disease.

"Although people do lose weight, this is nothing like "The Biggest Loser." It's an overweight/obesity chronic-disease prevention program. It is a competition based on your percent of body weight, and we help people create new lifestyle behaviors that will improve their health and well-being," said Janis Newton, director of the MUSC Wellness Center.

Guided by a team of professionals ranging from dietitians to personal trainers, exercise physiologists, health coaches, weight-loss specialists and lifestyle-management experts, the participants commit to weekly meetings, trainer workouts and food logging in hopes of creating better, healthier habits. Since the program began, the group as a whole has lost close to 50,000 pounds, and their healthier choices led to better blood lipid profiles, better physical fitness and reduced risk factors for chronic disease. Its design and success has earned two national awards: one for program innovation from the Medical Fitness Association, and one for best behavior modification from Club Industry.

"Each team in the Healthy Charleston Challenge is assigned mentors. When somebody completes the program, if they're 'all in' and they get it, they can apply to come back as a mentor, sit with the new team of participants and go through the program with them," said Newton. "Of course, the team loves them because they've been there before. When the mentor program originated, no program in the country incorporated that concept. Since then, a research study has proven that the mentor program can improve long-term success."

To Newton, the award for behavior modification best proves the success of the program.

"A year later, these people are still making healthy choices. This isn't a short-term fix for a long-term problem; we do little changes in lifestyle behavior that will get very big health benefits, which keeps participants motivated and inspired. We teach them the proper way to manage the process of redefining themselves with health, nutrition, exercise and behavior change," she continued.

The Healthy Charleston Challenge's exercise program is intense but adaptive, and, while many register individually, several groups enter together to enhance motivation and friendly competition.

"We have a lot of businesses that get a group of employees together to form a team, which is great because they then have a lot of support at work. It's the same with families – nothing's better than getting the whole family into it. It's so much family time together with a great purpose. I recently ran into a family at Whole Foods that did the challenge and had amazing results. It's completely changed their family dynamic and has made their kids 'own' their own health," Newton said.

Even groups of chefs and firemen have joined past challenges to encourage better health.

Participants in the program range from people in their teens to their 70s, and, no matter their age, the Healthy Charleston Challenge adapts to help their needs.

"Redefining yourself in your 70s is different than redefining yourself in your 20s or 30s, and, with experts guiding you along the way, we help you learn to manage yourself no matter your age," she continued.

Ultimately, Newton stressed that the Healthy Charleston Challenge is not a weight-loss competition but a program for those who truly want to make the choice to make their health a priority.

"We're here to help participants make the right choices, learn to be consistent and learn to focus; that's the formula for success. Don't go by 'how many pounds can I lose this week?' or 'I want to get rid of the fat right here,'" she said. "Look at your body through internal maintenance: Fuel it right, move it right, pay attention to rest, sleep and hydration, reduce stress and be consistent. The rest will happen when your body is healthy."

"Making the right choices, being consistent, and making your health a priority is the formula for success, and that's what the Healthy Charleston Challenge is all about," Newton said.

To sign up for the upcoming six-week mini-session that begins in May, contact Tatiana Baier at 843-792-4141 or apply online. Space is limited.

By Anne Toole

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