Medical School Student Works to Get Rhode Islanders in Shape

Rajiv Kumar is being honored for his efforts to reduce obesity among Rhode Island residents through exercise and healthy eating.

Every medical student learns how obesity, diabetes and heart disease inflict a dramatic toll on our society and drive up health care costs. But Rajiv Kumar is one who developed a strategy and created a nonprofit organization, Shape Up RI, to inspire people to change their lifestyles to avoid the health problems associated with being overweight.

“We don’t have a cure for cancer, but we do have an answer for how to prevent or reverse the most common lifestyle-related illnesses. We just needed to figure out how to get people to take advantage of that information and follow it,” says Kumar, a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

As a new medical student, Kumar may have been short on time and money, but he was long on vision and leadership. Thanks to his efforts, over the past four years, 35,000 Rhode Islanders have participated in this successful program. They have lost thousands of pounds, walked millions of miles, and proved that teamwork is a powerful prescription for taking control of their health. In a 12-week annual challenge, participants compete on teams and track their weight, exercise hours and/or pedometer steps.

Although many Americans struggle to eat healthily, exercise and lose weight, Kumar says research shows that people are most successful changing their behavior when participating in a group—not alone. Kumar didn’t do it alone either. He enlisted business, media, and community leaders, including Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), to promote his effort to encourage Rhode Islanders to get in shape.

How does it work? Shape Up RI hosts an online social networking platform that allows people to invite their friends, family members and colleagues to eat healthily, lose weight or exercise together. “We don’t tell people what to do in our program; we give them the tools to help them figure it out for themselves. We just give them the opportunity, structure and support they need to adopt healthy lifestyles,” says Kumar.

Shape Up RI has expanded its reach by engaging thousands of participants in the workplace. In fact, when employers cover the cost of participating in the program, Shape Up RI attracts four times the number of participants. A kids’ pilot program has been created, and Shape Up RI Seniors will launch in 2010.

The data-driven program permits Kumar to point to thousands of participants who thank the program for helping to change their lives. “We have people thanking us who say, ‘I have lost weight for the first time in my life; I am off my diabetes medications; I am going for evening walks with my husband and my marriage is stronger.’ We only gave them the opportunity. They thank us, but the truth is that they did the hard work.”

Although he has never had a weight problem himself, Kumar said that his organization helps to hold him accountable for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. “I am just like everybody else in that I have difficulty finding time for exercise and don’t always eat healthily. You don’t get to a situation where two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese unless it is a shared struggle. The key is to recognize that it will take a collective effort for all of us to change our environment and culture to one that is conducive to healthy living.”