The 2011 Champions of Health and Fitness
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Fitness

The 2011 Champions of Health and Fitness

A plan to shape up the nation. A flourishing garden in a school devastated by Hurricane Katrina. A cross-country bike ride to raise money for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are just some of the inspiring accomplishments of the 10 heroes FITNESS honors here -- do-good powerhouses who are helping people in the United States live healthier and better. Get in on their amazing action here.

America's Doctor: Regina Benjamin, MD

By Cristina Goyanes

The U.S. surgeon general, Regina Benjamin, MD, knows how hard it is to squeeze exercise into a busy schedule. In the year since she took office, she's been on the road three to four days a week. But still she manages to make time to work out, and she's determined to help all Americans do the same. "Exercise is the new medicine. It will make you feel a lot better," says Dr. Benjamin, who puts on her sneakers and walks around the airport when she's between flights. "If you do 30 minutes a day, you get so many benefits."

To launch her get-moving mission, last January she released "The Surgeon General's Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation," her grassroots plan for combating the obesity epidemic. Among other things, she has called on employers to encourage physical activity through group classes at work, on physicians to talk to patients about how their weight can affect their health, and on families to become more active and limit TV viewing to two hours a day.

"I want to move from a negative conversation about disease to a positive conversation about being healthy and fit," Dr. Benjamin explains. "We need to stop bombarding people with what they can't do and start talking about what they enjoy doing." Take walking, one of Dr. Benjamin's favorite activities: Last June in Baltimore, she kicked off an initiative called the Surgeon General's Walk for a Healthy and Fit Nation, the first of many such walks she will do with citizens throughout the country. Off the clock, she's an avid hiker who did a rim-to-rim trek through the Grand Canyon last fall.

To set the nation on a path to better health, Dr. Benjamin is heading a council of government experts to develop a national prevention strategy that will be released in March. "This is the first time that the entire government is attempting to make it easier for Americans to be healthy," she says. "It has become everyone's issue."

Compassionate Medicine: Roseanna Means, MD

By Lisa Haney

As a hiker and climber, Roseanna Means, MD, knows how to over­come obstacles. So when female patients weren't showing up at the Boston clinic for the homeless where she worked as the medical director, she started Women of Means, a brigade of volunteer doctors who donate $500,000 worth of medical care to 2,500 women and their children at 10 shelters every year. The women are also taught good nutrition, given pedometers and encouraged to walk, and offered yoga and dance classes. "Here are women who have lost everything, but they're dancing; it sends tingles down my spine," says Dr. Means, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "One stereotype we're happy to smash is that poor people don't care about their health."

Her own share of hard luck, including domestic violence, the death of a child, and cancer, helps Dr. Means connect with the women. In 2007 she had surgery to replace both knees. Her next goal is to climb Kilimanjaro with a group of women who have had joint replacements. We have no doubt she'll make it happen, by any means necessary.

The Wheel Deal: Chris Carney

By Cristina Goyanes

Ideas cooked up at a bar generally don't hold much water. But Chris Carney's suggestion several years ago was a keeper. After hosting a fund-raiser for a wounded soldier, the personal trainer and amateur cyclist from East Hampton, New York, impulsively offered to do a solo coast-to-coast charity bike ride to raise more money. Word of his Soldier Ride spread quickly, and the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), a nonprofit dedicated to helping injured veterans, invited him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to meet the servicemen he would be biking for. "The first thing that hit me was their youth," Carney says. "These guys were all in their early twenties. It affected me tremendously." In August 2004 he set out on an almost 5,000-mile route from Montauk, New York, to San Diego.

Before Carney ended his journey on October 7, Heath Calhoun and Ryan Kelly, two wounded veterans who rode with him in Denver, were already planning his second ride, for 2005; they accompanied him the entire trip. By 2006, Carney had raised nearly $4 million -- and lifted the spirits of scores of injured men and women. "Soldier Ride opened my eyes to what my life could be like by not letting my disability define me," says Dan Nevins, a wounded vet. Now executive vice president of events for WWP, Nevins oversees Soldier Rides in 14 states that are open to everyone. Carney is focusing on ways to expand the program. "There are people in warrior transition units all over the world," Nevins says. "Why can't we take Soldier Ride there? That's what Chris continues to pioneer."

Budding Genius: Donna Cavato

By Cristina Goyanes

Walk onto the grounds of the Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans and you'll see a big, beautiful organic garden; an outdoor classroom; a composting station; a greenhouse; and a citrus grove. This green oasis, which was once covered with asphalt and flooded with five feet of water after Hurricane Katrina, is Louisiana's first-ever Edible Schoolyard (ESY), an educational gardening program. Nearly five years ago ESY program director Donna Cavato, along with a landscape architect, led a group that included teachers, students, and neighbors in designing the teaching garden. "It was a therapeutic process for the kids to rebuild this campus that wasn't in great shape even before Katrina," Cavato says. The garden now yields about 2,600 pounds of produce every school year. The children regularly work in the garden, and the chef-teachers on Cavato's staff show them how to use the produce they grow to prepare healthy dishes that taste good. The result: Kids who never ate fruits and vegetables now love the cafeteria's salad bar. "Teaching young children the pleasures of enjoying delicious, seasonal foods will have a lifelong impact on their health and happiness," Cavato says.

Tough-Love Trainer: Jillian Michaels

By Patty Adams Martinez

She's been called a drill sergeant, but Jillian Michaels wants you to know that she doesn't have a mean bone in her body. "When people are being self-destructive, it's usually unconscious," she has said. "And so I create confrontations, interventions, where they can become aware of unhealthy choices they're making and the reasons they're making them. Do you know how easy it would be to tell people what they want to hear? Unfortunately, it doesn't get the job done." And Michaels always gets the job done. Millions tune in to watch her on The Biggest Loser and Losing It with Jillian, and they buy her best-selling books, exercise DVDs, video games, and nutritional supplements.

A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Michaels formed her tough-love approach to fitness at age 14, when she was "the chubby ugly duckling who ate lunch alone every day. Karate saved my life," Michaels has said. It helped her slim down and gave her discipline and confidence. Going through her own personal transformation taught her what works with others -- namely, setting goals that make people really want to change. "Feeling good in a bathing suit, or seeing your grandchildren graduate from high school: Those things are worth it," Michaels has said. "It's not just about being fat and then being thin. When you're healthy physically, you're healthy in every aspect of life."

Healing Force: Kathryn Schmitz, PhD

By Lisa Haney

For cancer patients the medical advice about exercise used to be: Rest. Don't push yourself. Now, thanks to an international team of experts led by Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has issued guidelines strongly endorsing exercise for cancer patients and survivors and begun certifying specialized cancer exercise trainers. A pioneer who has been researching the benefits of strength training for breast cancer survivors for more than a decade, Schmitz, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says exercise improves quality of life and empowers women to reconnect with their bodies. "We're seeing physiological changes," she says, including improved strength and fitness, stronger bones, and decreased fatigue. Still, many oncologists are too focused on treating cancer to prescribe exercise. "The only way that cancer patients are going to get it is by demanding that their physicians give them access to it," Schmitz says. "The ACSM recommendations are a key first step in providing doctors with guidance and support."

Class Act: John Skretta

By Bethany Gumper

Stop by any school in the Norris School District 160 in Firth, Nebraska, after lunch and you'll see students engaged in a unique lesson plan: Calorie-Blasting 101. Superintendent John Skretta initiated twice-a-day 10-minute activity sessions during which fitness DVDs stream to the school's closed-circuit TV station. Teachers turn on the tube and do jumping jacks, sit-ups, and planks with the kids.

Only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools offer daily phys ed classes, according to a national study. That's why Skretta, a member of the Lincoln Ice Hockey Association and a runner with six marathons under his belt, was thrilled when a 2004 federal law required all schools to enact a student health and wellness policy by the start of the 2006 school year. He partnered with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to combat childhood obesity, and since then he has overhauled the district's phys ed programs and pushed teachers to rethink the way they do their jobs. "The traditional method of instruction -- lecturing for hours while kids sit and absorb information like sponges -- isn't healthy for students' minds or bodies," Skretta says. In addition to the daily breaks at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., each school period starts with a Jammin' Minute, in which synchronized dancing gets students' hearts pumping.

The staff has gotten in on the action too, by means of walking and running clubs, and the high school hosts a local walk/run for the community on the first Saturday of each month. "My goal is for parents and the community to view the school as a place where families can be active together," Skretta says. We say he deserves a gold star.

Action Heroine: Jessica Biel

By Patty Adams Martinez

She's been in plenty of adventure movies, but Jessica Biel's favorite role is the take-action crusader she plays off-screen. "I feel it's important to stand up for what you believe in," the actress has said. Biel has hosted and participated in Revlon Run/Walks for breast and ovarian cancer (her grandmother is a breast cancer survivor), and she's also a defender of the environment. Biel made headlines last January by climbing Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of the global water crisis. She credits her love of exercise to her childhood in Boulder, Colorado. "For me, being athletic and active is a way of life," she says. No surprise, then, that Biel has set her sights on climbing to one of the base camps on Mount Everest. As she puts it, "I would encourage anyone who has a voice to get behind something that makes sense for them."

Social Networker: Chris Downie

By Cristina Goyanes

Inspired by his own healthy makeover in his twenties and by helping a colleague lose 50 pounds, Chris Downie came up with an innovative way to turn those aha moments, or "sparks," into a business. In 2001 he launched SparkPeople.com, an online community whose mission is to help people reach their health goals. Today, with 9 million users, it is the largest diet and fitness website in the United States, and features health tips, online tools like fitness trackers, workout videos, and recipes -- all free. "Helping someone else be successful helps you stick to your own goals," Downie says. "It truly changes your life."

Food Revolutionary: Jamie Oliver

By Cristina Goyanes

Rotisserie chicken. Steamed broccoli. Fresh fruit salad. Those are just some of the healthy foods being served in the Cabell County school district in Huntington, West Virginia, thanks to chef Jamie Oliver, whose Emmy Award-winning TV show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, helped overhaul lunch menus that were filled with processed, fatty fare. "Learning about food and how to cook are important life skills," Oliver says. "We have a responsibility to teach our kids these skills." He has made great strides in England, his home country: After hundreds of thousands of people signed his online petition calling for better food for kids, the government announced an almost $1 billion investment to improve nutrition in schools. Last year Oliver started a similar petition in the United States that has more than 622,000 signatures; he plans to present it to Congress. Now, after recently winning a $100,000 award from TED, a nonprofit that helps advance world-changing ideas, Oliver is working to educate families about healthy eating through community cooking programs. "A little food knowledge goes a long way," he says. "I want people to be armed with the skills to make healthy changes."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2011.

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