Helen Phillips’ body once bulged uncomfortably in size 22 pants. The Michigan woman – who went on to vanquish an astonishing 140 pounds on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” last year – had fallen victim to a destructive cycle of overeating, inactivity and self-pity. Like millions of obese Americans, it seemed Phillips’ fate had been predetermined to include a plethora of weight-related illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and possibly heart failure.

Sound familiar?

In Baltimore, where the obesity rate among African Americans is dangerously high, officials at St. Agnes Hospital sought to develop a multi-faceted wellness program to combat the metropolitan area’s battle against the bulge. According to hospital officials, “smarthealth” is the first multidisciplinary initiative in Maryland offering a medically-supervised and comprehensive approach to diet, exercise, lifestyle and mind. The program, founded by Saint Agnes’ renowned bariatric expert Dr. Kuldeep Singh and Sykesville, Md.-based corporate wellness company WellAdvantage, seeks to affordably offer the emotional and fitness support “Biggest Loser” participants enjoyed.

“When I look back at my life, I wish I’d started this type of program a long time ago,” said Phillips in an interview with the AFRO. “I was such a horrible yo-yo dieter that I was always looking for a quick fix. Now I realize there is no quick fix; it’s all about living a healthy lifestyle.”

To celebrate the program’s launch, Phillips, 50, visited St. Agnes where she spoke to more than 200 community members and health experts about her journey to wellness and the enduring effects of dramatic weight loss. But Joe Meyers, director of strategic planning at St. Agnes, said most Americans looking to improve their health will not experience the media fanfare – and $250,000 winning prize – that fuels many reality show contestants. And while smarthealth touts its team of über-dedicated lifestyle coaches, participants must be equally invested in the initiative’s cause.

“One of the biggest differences you’ll see with the programs is the level of support you will get from your health coach and the other members of the team on an ongoing basis,” said Meyers, who also works part-time as a fitness instructor. “You can come in and out of the gym and people don’t even know you’ve been there…but this program does require a level of work and participation from the participant and we’re very clear about personal accountability.”

In addition to a supportive team of coaches, a nurse practitioner or health care expert conducts a biometric screening that tests cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose levels. Participants are then educated about their overall health outlook and encouraged to nix unhealthy habits like smoking or excessive drinking. According to the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force, 14 percent of the city’s low-income families did not have adequate access to healthy foods in 2009 and advertisers heavily promote alcoholic and tobacco products in urban neighborhoods. While smarthealth cannot solve the city’s public health disparities, Meyers said it could become a community resource for those lacking structure and guidance on their weight loss journey.

“It has to be more than about weight and really more about your health,” said Meyers. “We’ve also integrated technology, particularly to the web, as a way to bring the experience to the average person on a more affordable level. In addition to face to face meetings with the coach, the coach will interface with the client via the web and be able to monitor them on an ongoing basis with affordable technology.”

In Baltimore, more than a third of adults are obese, according to the city’s health department, and nearly twice as many obese adults are African American compared to White city-dwellers. Even more disturbing is the mortality rate among Baltimoreans compared to other Maryland residents. According to the health department, city residents die six years earlier than other Marylanders, on average, and life expectancy can vary by up to 20 years in nearby neighborhoods. Factors like HIV/AIDS and homicides also factor into these statistics, but diseases often born of overweight/obesity also play a pivotal role in the city’s startling health trends.

It was this fear of a future wrought with uncertainty and disease that prompted Phillips to enter the “Biggest Loser” competition and ultimately, become a weight loss victor.

“The smarthealth program is exactly what everybody needs to check into. It’s amazing to me because after I read over everything in their program, it’s exactly what the ‘Biggest Loser does,’ said Phillips, who was moved to tears as she reflected on her weight-loss challenge. “There are no big surprises, there’s no magic. The magic is you and how committed you want to be to change your lifestyle. It’s hard…but it’s so well worth it when you’re seeing progress and you’re able to get off meds and you’re able to live healthy and you feel good.”


Kristin Gray

AFRO Managing Editor