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Txts 2 Help PG Lose W8

Students Lead Effort to Help County Lose 1 Million Pounds

By Alex Stoller

PG Health

You might use your smartphone to lounge on the sofa and watch sappy commercials with puppies.

But what if that device could motivate you to snack on an apple instead of a Twix bar or play soccer as a family instead of having a sedentary movie night?

A new School of Public Health-run program seeking to help Prince George’s County residents lose a million pounds in the next year will use educational and motivational text messages about fitness, nutrition and personal health.

Twenty undergraduate interns in the Healthy Futures program will launch the weight-loss challenge “Lose It to Win It” on Oct. 1, expanding a summer effort focused on children and partnering with a service that reaches out to pregnant women.

Nearly 72 percent of county residents are overweight or obese, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. And 89 percent of residents have cell phones, says Professor Elliot Segal, faculty leader of Healthy Futures. Ending obesity locally might start with a text message, he says.

“I don’t know where it’s going to take us,” says Segal. “There have been so many things where people have said, ‘Let’s curb obesity,’ and is the problem getting better? The answer is no, it’s getting worse.”

For Lose It to Win It, the team is looking for 250,000 Prince George’s citizens, students and employees to pledge to lose at least four pounds over the next year.

All participants need to do is provide their names, ZIP codes and cell phone numbers. Participants can register online, at Healthy Futures events, or at malls, schools, doctor’s offices and hospital clinics that sponsor the program. Every week, they’ll get texts with recipes, nutrition facts, fitness tips and words of encouragement.

At the end of each month participants will report their total weight loss to the team via text or an online forum.

Block parties and other prizes from sponsors, health insurers and fundraisers will act as rewards for communities with the most weight lost. Healthy Futures intern Sarahann Yeh ’16 hopes a sense of competition will motivate participants to get involved and shed weight.

The team focused exclusively on children—45 percent of county youth are obese or overweight—and partnered with former NFL player Madieu Williams ’03 and the Prince George’s parks and recreation department over the summer to teach kids the basics of soccer.

Now intern Sarah Sebastian ’15 is working with Williams’ foundation to expand the program to local elementary schools under a sports academy format.

“You have to instill healthy habits when kids are young because [these habits] will be easier to learn, uphold and maintain once they get older,” says Sebastian.

The Healthy Futures team partnered with text4baby, a national service that provides expectant mothers with information about healthy pregnancies directly to their phones. Participants will also have access to infant programs and services, and postpartum women will get weight management tips.

“At Healthy Futures, we believe you have to start with pregnant mothers to tackle obesity. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle starts before birth,” says Yeh.

Segal hopes the group’s work will spread to other counties and states. “We are going in any and all directions, and we are being as opportunistic as we can,” he says.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.