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Governor setting healthy example with weight loss

Promoting a healthy lifestyle in one of the unhealthiest states in America is a difficult job, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is off to a good start — losing 18 pounds since he announced his initiative five months ago.

Barbour, 59, rises before the sun five days a week and spends 45 minutes on his elliptical exercise machine. When the Republican governor attends events where food is served, he skips the bread and sugar, opting for fruit and vegetables instead.

Barbour hopes to eventually shed another 15 pounds from his 235-pound frame and remain in the ranks of leaders in other states, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who are setting a healthy example for their constituents.

“If I’m going to advocate and promote this Healthy Mississippi program, then I’ve got to practice what I preach. If I don’t seem to take it seriously, why should they?” Barbour said Wednesday.

Barbour began his statewide initiative in June, urging schools, businesses, churches and communities to get involved in various programs that would help residents adopt better eating and exercise habits.

His goal is to strip Mississippi of its distinction as the nation’s leader in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

On Wednesday, Barbour joined BlueCross BlueShield of Mississippi at a news conference at the insurance company’s Flowood headquarters to announce the “Let’s Go Walkin’ Mississippi” campaign.

The company sponsored a Web site with walking tips and paid for television advertisements that began airing Wednesday to promote the exercise.

“It doesn’t require special gear or a health gym membership. It’s as simple as parking farther out in the parking lot store at the mall. Our purpose today is to get and keep that message in the public’s mind,” said John Sewell, a spokesman for BlueCross BlueShield.

Sewell said BlueCross BlueShield also offers walking and yoga classes to its nearly 1,000 employees.

Barbour wants to get other companies to adopt similar practices, which he said could help lower health insurance premiums, “which means there’s more money for raises, pension plans and to hire more employees.”

Dozens of states have started healthy initiatives over the last few years, said Laura Segal, a spokeswoman for Trust for America’s Health, a Washington-based advocacy group that released a study this year that found nearly two-thirds of all Americans are either overweight or obese.

Segal said it’s too soon to gauge the effectiveness of the programs, but the encouragement of state leaders is positive.

Segal said state employee participation has been a cornerstone of the Healthy Virginia program. She said the state employees are encouraged to exercise during work hours and are given healthier cafeteria options.

In Arkansas, where Huckabee lost more than 100 pounds to become the face of that state’s health movement, schools have begun measuring the body mass index of students to determine if diet and exercise changes are working, said Segal.

Barbour said he’ll push Mississippi lawmakers to pass a bill in the 2007 regular session to require 30 minutes of daily physical activity for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

While physical education is required in elementary and middle school, the state currently does not set the duration and frequency of the courses. “There’s only one high school in Mississippi that requires P.E. to graduate. When we were growing up we had to take P.E.,” Barbour said. “We’re going to be cursed by having raised a generation of 30-year-old diabetics.”