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Chicago tries to shape up; industry execs help out

Burdened with an unyielding penchant for deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, arguably some of the lousiest weather around, Chicago certainly is no Venice Beach when it comes to active and fit lifestyles — alas, even Men's Fitness magazine named the Windy City as the nation's second-fattest in its last survey.

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Burdened with an unyielding penchant for deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, arguably some of the lousiest weather around, and too-close proximity to Wisconsin’s abundance of beer, brats and cheese, Chicago certainly is no Venice Beach or Marin County when it comes to active and fit lifestyles — alas, even Men’s Fitness magazine named the Windy City as the nation’s second-fattest in its last survey. Ouch.

“We’re a melting pot, and we have a lot of body shapes here,” said Colleen Lammel, senior fitness program specialist for the Chicago Park District and co-chair of the new Chicago WorksOut (CWO) fitness initiative and Mayor’s Council on Fitness (MFC). “Clearly, we have some work to do.”

In an admirable effort – and one of many by municipalities nationally — launched in January this year by Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Office and the Chicago Park District, CWO is aiming to get folks doing just that – working out. According to co-chair Matt Marino, who is deputy director of sports and recreation at the Chicago Park District, CWO was two years in the making and actually not a knee-jerk or get-even reaction to the Men’s Fitness ranking.

“This is the first official fitness effort that the city has sponsored,” Marino told SNEWS. “People need to be educated more, and we’re looking at simple programs as the only way to make this work. We want to make it fun and easy to start exercising — to convince them to walk a bit, then jog…just take baby steps and eventually make a lifestyle change.”

The MFC, bringing together public and private sectors as volunteers, are charged with developing events, sponsorships, communications tools and various other programs. Members include Kevin Grodzki, president and CEO of Life Fitness; Paul Toback, president of Bally Total Fitness; David Ewing, commercial product consultant for The Fitness Experience; and various city agencies, local physicians and recreational clubs. Honorary members are professional athletes such as Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher and Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs.

“We are looking at the power of this network to help Chicago do better when it comes to fitness,” Grodzki told SNEWS. “The is an active group of true professionals who we can learn from—and you can’t necessarily get this broad input anywhere else.”

A main thrust for CWO is its Web site ( that gives fitness tips, lists upcoming recreational events and provides links to information about walking trails, exercise classes and other city fitness resources. CWO signs have been hung in local parks indicating the distance of running/cycling paths, and the Chicago Park District is adding state-of-the-art fitness centers to six of its locations.

Also, CWO currently is hosting a fitness incentive program through the park district, challenging adults and kids to “run” the 122-mile perimeter of the city by earning miles cumulatively for exercising or participating in recreational activities that add up to that total. In addition, Marino has begun meeting with schools to improve cafeteria menu nutrition and jump-start regular physical activity.

So far, the program has been a smattering of several efforts. “We’re looking at this like an anti-littering campaign where you see the message so much you think twice about — or feel so guilty about — littering that you start to change your behavior,” said Marino.

And although everyone is enthusiastically rallying behind this worthy cause, the risk indeed looms—particularly given that the Mayor’s office has not allocated any funding—that CWO amounts to only an attractive logo without any real oomph behind it that actually changes behavior.

Marino acknowledged that he and Lammel — along with CWO/MFC co-chair Michael Sena, who is a club owner, personal trainer and NBC-TV’s fitness consultant in Chicago — are meeting with MFC committees every month, working hard not to let this die.

“We trying to create awareness, educate and motivate,” said Sena. “Realistically, we may not get 10-20 percent more people working out during our first year. But we can just get people moving more and making better choices when they eat.”

Six months into the initiative, Grodzki said, “we’re getting close to the critical stage now. We need a couple of small wins starting some modest programs. If we demonstrate success, I think it can be infectious. If not, then this may not have legs.”

What constitutes success? The CWO/MFC team is still wrestling with this but hopes that its efforts eventually show up in areas like obesity and activity levels that are measured annually by the city’s Department of Public Health.

“We recognize that just getting people moving and eating better are huge goals,” said Marino, “but we’re trying to combat this problem one step at a time. It just can’t happen overnight.”

Ideally, the initiative will run indefinitely—or at least until there is a new mayor in a few years who may or may not be behind it. If successful, Chicago leaders have said they hope the program could be a model for other cities struggling with obesity, which could of course mean virtually anywhere, based on scary national statistics on increasing obesity that SNEWS has discussed more than once.

Other cities and states already are tackling health issues in other ways. A few years ago, the Mayor of Philadelphia challenged residents to shed 76 tons in 76 weeks after earning Men’s Fitness’ ignominious title of Fattest City in America. Other efforts popping up almost monthly include:

  • The city of Calcium, NY, just began its “Calcium Weighs In” program to help residents lose weight through a diet rich in calcium and a goal of 2,000 additional steps each day.
  • West Virginia is implementing a “Stop the soda super-sizing” initiative—similar to its previous “Biggie Fries=Biggie Thighs” campaign to chip away at its obesity levels, ranked second in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • The Colorado on the Move program encourages folks simply to take 200 more steps and eat 100 fewer calories each day. And it’s spawned a similar America on The Move program.
  • 24 Hour Fitness teamed up with Providence Health System, Safeway Food and Drug and KOIN 6 TV to develop ways to enhance the health of residents of Oregon and southwest Washington.

SNEWS View: Over the years, cities and states doing such programs have been more like publicity stunts in retaliation for some ranking of fattest bequeathed on it. But the nation has moved beyond a few yucks and cute t-shirts in weight-loss efforts; this is now serious business that is — and will — weigh on the nation’s economics, health and success. What we’re really glad to see is the fitness industry execs like Grodzki and Toback as well as a major retailer like The Fitness Experience getting involved. The industry should be involved! It’s not only philanthropic but good for business long term since results can be cumulative.

In fact, we see no reason why a manufacturer or retailer couldn’t take it upon itself to adopt, if you will, its own city or area and help with similar get-fit, get-moving, grassroots programs, offering not only planning and consulting, but perhaps equipment discounts and help the municipality work with clubs for community visits. This of course means also being willing to step beyond the solitary role of equipment and looking at the broader good that includes supporting recreational trails, measured paths, and the likes of parcourses that don’t include equipment but may be a first step toward someone getting healthier – and eventually using equipment. Even helping to outfit a community center with some equipment for those who can’t afford clubs would be helpful – that doesn’t mean giving away the shop, but perhaps offering solid discounts, help planning for a center’s needs, and working with other manufacturers outside the area for other gear. What we don’t want to see – due to its lack of funding – is the likes of Chicago WimpsOut. C’mon Mayor Daley, if New York City and San Francisco can close down major thoroughfares in and around parks during popular workout times, you could even consider closing down a few miles of Lakeshore Drive to let the area be free of traffic. It would spark a festival-like atmosphere that could gain a life of its own. Maybe the next step is America WorksOut. Now, wouldn’t that be divine?