Arkansas governor weighs in on fitness

Mike Huckabee turns his health around, now aims to get his state in shape


September 02, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | By Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

Running for governor of Arkansas was a snap compared with running around the governor's mansion.

At first, Mike Huckabee couldn't finish the third-of-a-mile loop. He maxed out at about 50 yards. "I understand why people aren't healthy," says the 50-year-old Republican, now midway through a second four-year term and rumored to be eyeing the White House in 2008. "I am sort of the role model of worst behavior."

Too many years of too much eating and too little exercise. Next thing you know, the bathroom scale reads 280 pounds.

Huckabee miraculously managed to reverse course in middle age and shed more than a third of his body weight, a fitness "pilgrimage" he recounts in his slim (162-page) book titled Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork.

In the spring of 2003, Huckabee's doctor informed him he was an actuarial statistic waiting to happen. He had developed type 2 diabetes. His blood-sugar level was haywire. There had been episodes of chest pains and numb hands. It was time to get in shape or double up on life insurance.

Huckabee opted to join a weight-loss program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He cut out potato chips and other fatty foods. He limited himself to 2,000 calories a day while guzzling eight glasses of water.

Physical activity had to be phased in. He started walking about 12 minutes a day, then worked up to jogging. In March, Huckabee finished the Little Rock marathon in 4 hours, 38 minutes, and is now training for October's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington.

"It was a deeply spiritual experience," the former Baptist preacher says of his first marathon. "You've beat that demon chasing you called diabetes. You're healthy."

His turnaround (he now weighs 170 pounds) was a triumph over ingrained bad habits. Food always loomed large in Huckabee's life: a stress reliever when things went bad, a reward when things were going great.

He grew up in Hope, Ark., home to another famous overeater, Bill Clinton, and tells of the time his class had a show-and-tell day with a religion theme. One student brought a crucifix to school. Another student brought a menorah. Young Mike Huckabee showed up with a covered-dish casserole.

Being a recovering heavyweight, Huckabee says, gives him the political leverage and personal credibility to lead an ambitious "Healthy Arkansas" public health initiative. The program in particular targets smoking, inactivity and obesity.

"This is a quantum step for Arkansas," says Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, director of the Department of Health's Center for Health Advancement. "We are ranked at the bottom of the pile in terms of the percentage of us who have chronic disease."

What caught the attention of state officials were statistics like these from a 2001 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Arkansas ranked first among all states in stroke-related deaths, sixth in lung cancer and eighth in heart disease.

In 2000, Huckabee had urged voters to pass a ballot initiative mandating that the state's share of the landmark tobacco-liability restitution fund be spent entirely on health-related problems. He began using that money with an emphasis on prevention as much as treatment.

Arkansas became the first state (California followed later) to measure the body mass index of all public school children in hopes of catching obesity early. Health-care coverage has been extended to 180,000 children of the working poor. Free nutrition counseling and stop-smoking assistance are provided to state employees and Medicaid recipients. Co-payments and insurance deductibles are waived for state employees who undergo screening tests for prostate, breast and colon cancer. State employees also earn days off by losing weight or joining an exercise class.

"It's a matter of changing the culture of health," says Huckabee.

The number of adult smokers in Arkansas has declined from 26 to 22 percent in the past two years, but it's too early to tell if "Healthy Arkansas" will have a lasting impact.

Traditionally, Maryland statistically outshines less affluent, rural states. A 2002 CDC survey found 19 percent of the state's residents were obese and 23 percent physically inactive, compared with 24 and 27 percent, respectively, for Arkansas.

Dr. Michelle Gourdine, deputy secretary for Public Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says a toll-free stop-smoking help line will be operable in about six months. The departments of health and education also held a joint summit on obesity prevention last year, and a resulting statewide prevention plan could be in place by January 2006.

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