Champions of Health & Fitness 2010
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Champions of Health & Fitness 2010

In our first annual Champions of Health & Fitness awards, we salute the role models, innovators, and activists who are helping Americans shape up, live healthy, and reach for the best. Winners include Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Donna Karan, and more.

Running Buddy: Anne Mahlum

Runners are a tough breed, and Anne Mahlum is no exception. When the men outside a homeless shelter started hollering at her as she jogged past, she didn't change her morning route to avoid them. The hard-charging Philadelphia marketing consultant steered straight to them and suggested they high-step it -- with her. "Logging miles has always made me feel good," Mahlum says. "I wanted to share that with these guys, so I offered to train with them three times a week." Nine took her up on it.

Today that running club has bloomed into the nonprofit organization Back On My Feet (BOMF), which has 13 full-time staffers, 1,000 volunteers, and 13 teams spread throughout Philly, Baltimore and, this month, Washington, D.C. (Chapters in Boston and Chicago are in the works.) Thanks to donations, fundraising events, and corporate sponsorships, Mahlum's mission has also expanded: In addition to helping members get strong physically and mentally, she now provides them with job training and placement, housing, and bank accounts.

Through BOMF, 64 men and women found work last year, 35 began job training, and 42 moved into their own homes. Last November, 63 members ran in the Philadelphia Marathon & Half Marathon. "The sense of accomplishment you get from finishing a race or going a mile can change your life," Mahlum says. It's a lesson everyone can follow. -- Rachel Sturtz

First Lady of Health: Michelle Obama

From the moment last spring that Michelle Obama started digging up the South Lawn to plant a vegetable garden, we knew she was going to be more than a hostess with the mostest. Those chiseled arms are a constant reminder. Obama, a former hospital executive, is serious about health and wants to help American families eat and feel better. She took a break to speak with us about the garden and more.

With the White House kitchen garden, you were hoping to share with kids everywhere how great fresh vegetables are. How's it going?
It's been a joy to see -- and eat -- the fruits of our labor. From what I have heard, the garden hasn't just touched the lives of the students [who helped plant, tend, and harvest], but students all over the country have been inspired to grow their own gardens, to get outside, to get their hands a little dirty -- or at the very least add a few more vegetables to their meals.

Why is eating good food such a big part of your message?
As a working mother, I had struggled with balancing healthy meals and our family's busy schedule. With the advice of my pediatrician, I realized that substituting healthy, fresh foods could go a long way. This experience is something I want to share with others.

What else do you want American women to know?
[One] thing that has made a real difference in our lives is sitting down together as a family for each meal. Barack and I do our best to have breakfast and dinner with our daughters. We tend to eat more healthily when we are all together at the table, and it gives us a chance to catch up, to check in, and to enjoy each other's company.

And don't forget, eating healthily yourself and setting a good example for your children is one of the greatest things you can do [as a mom]. If you are active and healthy, that will influence [your kids] in a positive way for years to come. I want my girls to see me enjoy healthy food, to see me take care of myself.

You often mention your experience as a mother. But does your work experience also inform your efforts?
My professional experiences reinforced all that I know as a mother. While working in Chicago, I saw too many young children brought into hospital emergency rooms for conditions that would not necessarily exist if they had been treated early on. The fact that almost a third of our nation's children are either overweight or obese is unacceptable.

What's planned for 2010?
In the coming years, we want to increase the number of schools [that join the USDA's HealthierUS School Challenge], increase the number of children participating in regular physical activity, improve access to and affordability of healthy food options in local communities, and empower consumers to make healthy food choices. We all have to work together as parents, as teachers, and as a nation to ensure that our children get the healthy start to life that they deserve.

Comeback Queen: Serena Williams

Even sports heroes have bad days, as Serena Williams's infamous outburst at the U.S. Open last fall reminded us. But the true mark of greatness isn't being perfect. It's being willing and wise enough to learn from your mistakes. And that's exactly what Williams did in the wake of getting hit with a record $92,500 fine. Instead of just paying the penalty, she announced that she would raise the same amount to give to schools. Calling her effort the 92K Mission, Williams wrote on her Web site, "This experience has educated me beyond belief, so I would also like to take this opportunity to educate women."

That's the story of her career: making the consummate return. Her spirit, like her forehand, is an unstoppable force. Four years ago Williams was in 140th place, hobbled by injuries and devastated by the murder of her half-sister. Speculation had it that she was finished. Last year the court's supreme warrior goddess roared back, reclaiming the number-one spot in women's tennis. As Williams says in her memoir, On the Line, "Just tell me 'No' and watch what happens."

So far she has racked up 23 Grand Slam titles, two Olympic gold medals, and more prize money than any female athlete in history. But Williams isn't counting. "I don't want to be remembered for the number of Grand Slams," she has said. What matters more and more to her is her good works off the court: supporting UNICEF's mission to combat malaria, visiting orphanages for children with AIDS, opening a girls' school in Matooni, Kenya (with one in Senegal to follow).

Larger than life yet still willing to grow, Williams keeps inspiring us all. "It's in the picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and pushing ourselves forward that we find our will, our drive, our purpose," she says.

-- Lynn Harris

Morale Booster: Julie Wilkes

Talk about going the extra mile for your colleagues. When Julie Wilkes saw the toll that long hours were taking on her coworkers, she didn't just put a comment in the suggestion box. In her spare time, Wilkes set up wellness offerings for employees in her Columbus, Ohio, office and in the U.S. offices of the consulting firm Accenture.

After convincing higher-ups that such measures would boost productivity, Wilkes launched a program that awarded a $100 health reimbursement to participants for walking a million steps, arranged for discounts at fitness and weight-loss centers, and recruited colleagues to schedule monthly local events, such as cooking classes. Six years later, many of her initiatives are now offered to the company's 30,000 U.S. employees as part of their benefits.

Where does Wilkes's extraordinary dedication come from? "I'm just passing the gift of fitness forward," says the workout buff. Born with a congenital heart defect, Wilkes wasn't expected to live beyond age 12. "But then my fifth-grade gym teacher introduced me to running, my heart got stronger, and here I am." And lucky for her colleagues, she's showing no signs of slowing down.

-- Caroline Hwang

Gadget Gurus: James Park and Eric Friedman

Ask engineers to pimp out a pedometer and this is what you get: a step counter that tracks when you're most (and least) active during the day as well as the quality of your sleep. A tiny device you can wear on your bra that uploads your data wirelessly to the Web. A gadget that turns exercise into a game. In other words, you have the $99 Fitbit.

The brainchild of entrepreneurs James Park and Eric Friedman isn't just another souped-up tracker, though. The two men had a loftier goal for their device: to make exercise a habit. "My idea was to do something similar to the Nintendo Wii but in a portable form, so that you could get the wellness benefit all day," Park says. As a result, the business partners may have finally cracked the problem that has long stumped health officials: how to get couch potatoes on their feet.

-- Caroline Hwang

Mayor on a Mission: Mick Cornett

Telling people that they need to lose weight isn't normally going to win you friends or voters. But Mick Cornett isn't your usual politician. The Republican mayor of Oklahoma City is a straight talker. He also cares very much about the health of his constituents.

So when his hometown appeared on a "fattest cities" list three years ago, Cornett decided to put Oklahoma City on a diet. "My advisers weren't so keen on the idea," says Cornett, who himself has lost 38 pounds. "But just sending out the message to eat more fruits and vegetables wasn't going to get anyone's attention."

To help citizens meet his challenge, the mayor arranged for a privately funded Web site ( where people can chart their progress and access useful links. He also got behind such initiatives as building gymnasiums in all 47 inner-city grade schools and adding 425 miles of sidewalks and 57 miles of trails.

The response has been resounding. As of January a total of 40,436 residents have lost 519,460 pounds. Restaurants have created low-cal offerings that they list as "the mayor's special" on menus. From around the state, Tulsa, Enid, and Edmond have called, wanting to adopt similar programs. Believing that it takes a healthy populace for a city to thrive, Cornett says, "I was just trying to start a conversation about weight." In the process, he founded a movement.

-- Caroline Hwang

Mind-Body Visionary: Donna Karan

Fashion designer Donna Karan has always made us look great. Now, through her groundbreaking Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, she's helping cancer patients also feel their best. The project, which launched at New York City's Beth Israel Medical Center last year, combines chemotherapy and radiation sessions with alternative treatments, such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and aromatherapy.

Karan, a yoga practitioner since she was a teenager, came up with the idea of helping ease patients' pain, anxiety, and nausea when her late husband, Stephan Weiss, was battling lung cancer in the late 1990s (he died in 2001). "I didn't know what to do to help him, so I turned to yoga and meditation and urged Stephan to do the same," Karan recalls. "Very quickly the yoga and breathing techniques gave him physical relief as well as spiritual comfort and eased his pain. Out of that experience, my commitment to holistic care was born."

By 2008, Karan had raised more than $850,000 through educational well-being forums, corporate contributions, and proceeds from the sale of furniture, jewelry, and clothes at her two Urban Zen boutiques. She donated the funds to Beth Israel, where they have been used to transform the hospital's oncology unit into a more soothing, sanctuary-like environment. Now doctors and nurses work side by side with practitioners of Eastern therapies who are introducing important approaches such as contemplative end-of-life care. The money is also supporting a clinical study of the results of the program's methods.

"I want to humanize the patient," Karan declares. "I believe simple acts, whether we're offering the scent of therapeutic oil or a healing touch, can transform a painful experience into one of comfort and hope."

-- Patty Adams Martinez

Pedal Pusher: Mia Birk

In our car-centric culture, urban bicyclists need all the allies they can find. One of their fiercest advocates is also one of their first: Mia Birk.

She started the wheels turning in Portland, Oregon, where she was the city's bicycle program manager from 1993 to 1999. There, Birk worked not only to reallocate sections of road for bike lanes but also to change attitudes. "My job was a series of battles every day," she says. Birk rode with street sweepers so that she could make sure they cleaned up broken glass. She pedaled to community presentations, asking frowning residents to support her bikeway projects. "Most ran for their cars, but a few would stay and want to know more."

Gradually she won Portland over, and on her watch 160 miles of bikeways were created, extensive bicycle parking was added, and bike-specific traffic signals were introduced. Three years after her arrival, the city was named the bike-friendliest in the nation.

Today Birk is taking the battle for more and better bike lanes across the country as a principal at Alta, a firm that has helped communities construct hundreds of safe places for residents to get out and ride. She's also part of a national coalition that's putting together a best-practices guide for cities. Birk fell for bikes as a graduate student. "You can't beat the low cost, convenience, and soaring feeling of fitness," she says. Thanks to her, we're all feeling the love.

-- Lynn Harris

Food Safety Superstar: Margaret A. Hamburg, MD

Double degrees from Harvard (undergrad and med school). A successful run as the youngest-ever New York City health commissioner. A spot as the second female FDA commissioner in history. Impressed? So are we. But we're even more inspired by the healthy strides Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, has made since last May, when President Obama appointed her to head the FDA. Thanks to Dr. Hamburg, the food in your shopping cart is getting safer and healthier.

Foodborne illness, including E. coli in cookie dough and salmonella in ground beef, peanuts, and alfalfa sprouts, was all over the news last year. In response, Dr. Hamburg is turning food safety inside out -- in a good way. "We've seen the consequences of having a reactive system. We wait for people to get sick and then try to track down the source," she explains.

The result: There are an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the United States every year, according to the CDC. Dr. Hamburg is focusing on prevention by requiring manufacturers to have more safety strategies in place. She's looking especially closely at the points where foods are most likely to be contaminated along the supply chain, from farm to fork.

Additionally Dr. Hamburg is making it easier to find healthy foods at the supermarket. "Busy shoppers don't have time to sort through the information. Nutrition facts need to be more accessible and more visual," she says. Change is long overdue: Nutrition labels on processed foods have not been significantly addressed since they were mandated 20 years ago. Her first steps? Exploring more-informative front-of-package labeling while cracking down on misleading health claims. "We know we need to do more," Dr. Hamburg says. She's off to a flying start.

-- Bethany Gumper

Play Masters: Jamie Dukes, Rich Eisen, and Scott Hanson

If you want to tackle childhood obesity, call in the NFL. That's the idea behind Keep Gym in School (KGIS), a national initiative to encourage physical education in America's middle schools that was launched by the NFL Network and is spearheaded by on-air announcers Jamie Dukes, Rich Eisen, and Scott Hanson, along with pro-team players. Each year, the program gives four U.S. schools $50,000 grants to renovate their gymnasiums, update exercise equipment, and fund PE instructors. Middle schools in the same districts get lesson plans and exercises to boost students' speed, coordination, and endurance. In addition, schools nationwide compete to receive ten $1,000 grants for phys ed funding. To date, KGIS has encouraged nearly 120,000 kids to get fit.

The need couldn't be greater. More than 30 percent of school-age children are overweight or obese, according to new research. A big contributing factor: lack of physical activity. "Keep Gym in School is teaching kids to work exercise into their regular routines," Dukes says. "Our emphasis is on changing their overall lifestyles to active ones."

-- Patty Adams Martinez

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2010.