By Ron Leir
NUTLEY – A lot of people probably wondered why the heck Maria Hamlin opted in for Mayor Joanne Cocchiola’s 2011 Wellness Challenge program.
After all, Hamlin was a seasoned local cop and a longtime member of the Air Force National Guard. Sounds like a pretty healthy individual, right? Well, not quite.
“I was in OK shape,” Hamlin said. “After having children (four ranging in age from 4 to 18), it’s very easy to let the weight go on. … As a cop, being on the road and going from one job to another, it’s easy to fall into the trap of fast food.”
But after a dramatic change of diet – switching to prepared meals with a defined calorie intake and turning into a seven-day-a-week gym rat – last May, Hamlin was crowned overall Challenge winner among some 180 participants after dropping 32.2 pounds and losing 18.2% of her total body weight.
And she’ll be back in the pack this year, hoping to be an inspiration to others.
The Wellness Challenge, now in its fourth year, kicked off Monday, Jan. 9, with 487 folks registered as of last week by township program and event coordinator Loren McCreesh.
“We’re running totally in line with last year’s enrollment,” McCreesh said. “We started with about 500 and we ended (16 weeks later) with 153 who successfully completed and lost 1,973 pounds.”
This year’s event has been extended to 18 weeks so as not to conflict with the upcoming May municipal election, she said.
“The primary objective,” McCreesh said, “is to get the community to think healthy, to keep moving. The second goal is weight loss.”
It’s open to people age 18 and older who are Nutley residents, township and/or Board of Education employees and those who work in Nutley. There’s a one-time only $15 registration fee to cover administrative costs. All participants get free Tshirts.
Thirty-five sponsors – including WeightWatchers – provide registrants with free and discounted health-related classes, lectures and workshops. Based on feedback from last year’s participants, the Challenge has already scheduled a Jan. 23 seminar on sugar addiction led by Dr. Leat Kuzniar of Nutley and a March 26 talk on menopause/ hormone imbalance/weight gain hosted by Barnabas Health Clara Maass.
People can enter the Challenge as individuals or as a team of five to seven members.
As in prior years, participants will weigh in every other week during scheduled daytime and/or evening times at either the township Public Affairs/Health Dept., 149 Chestnut St., or at school locations.
At Monday’s kick-off, held at the John H. Walker Middle School gym, staff from Mountainside Hospital of Montclair gave free health assessments to registrants who also met with nutritionists to strategize individual goals and lifestyle changes. Also, an exercise physiologist provided a fi tness analysis based on a body fat reading and step test. The fi rst 50 to attend got free glucose and cholesterol screenings.
A new Challenge sponsor, Barnabas Health Clara Maass Medical Center of Belleville, offered free blood pressure screenings, respiratory evaluations and stress tests to registrants.
Another new feature this year will be top prizes for male and female participants who lose the highest percentage of body weight and a prize for the best team. An award ceremony will be held May 14.
“For some people, this program can be life-changing,” said Mayor Cocchiola, who claims to have lost 22 pounds as a participant in 2009. “But it’s not just about losing weight,” Cocchiola added. “That’s why we call it a ‘wellness’ program. For example, in our first year, we had 40 people who had never run a 5K race before, joined a training program and did it.”
The Challenge seems to have caught on, the mayor said. “Each year,” she noted, “we get more of a core group of people who stay with it.”
And this year the township is looking to enroll the community’s younger members in a similar challenge with a new program, “Nutley Fit Kids,” fi nanced with a $15,000 Shaping NJ grant to combat childhood obesity.
Local kids, from kindergarten to grade 12, in Nutley public and private schools, will be encouraged to keep active by bicycling, running and group exercise and kids from grade 5 to 12 and their parents have been invited to come up with a “Healthy School Lunch Recipe” and the winning entries will be added to the school lunch menu. Judging will take place Feb. 11 at the high school.
Meanwhile, Nutley adults have accepted their Wellness Challenge and they better be watching out for the defending champion, Hamlin, who says she’s closely monitoring her “high protein, low carb” meal plan to get more lean and toned.
“People should realize that 70% of how you look is what you eat,” Hamlin said. “Look at the program as a lifechanging plan and you’ll have better results. If you don’t put the proper nutrients into your body, it’s not going to produce positive results.”
“A word to the wise,” Hamlin said. “People need to stay dedicated because I’m in it to win it. I wish my competitors good luck but they need to know I’m highly motivated.”