Campaigning for a Healthier America

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee knew he was overweight. His doctor had told him so. And at more than 280 pounds, he had trouble fitting into airplane seats and restaurant booths.

But his weight problem was made painfully evident in early 2003 at a meeting in a State Capitol conference room. The room had just undergone a renovation to restore its nearly century-old design and Huckabee's usual seat had been replaced with an antique chair. When the governor sat down, there was a collective gasp among the attendees. The chair had collapsed under his weight. Huckabee laughed it off at the time, joking, "They sure don't build them like they used to!" But, in his new book, "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork," he admits, "Deep down, I knew it wasn't the chair that needed rebuilding--it was me that needed a major overhaul."

To lose about 110 pounds, the governor developed what he calls a "12-stop" program with tips like: stop procrastinating, making excuses or fueling yourself with contaminated (a.k.a. junk) food. Now he's sharing his experiences in his book and in a new childhood obesity campaign launched last week with former president Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association. NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett spoke with Huckabee, a Republican, about his personal and political efforts advocating weight loss. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you and President Clinton decide to focus specifically on childhood obesity?

Gov. Mike Huckabee: It's the long-term goal of the American Heart Association to try to address this. People underestimate the epidemic of childhood obesity and the growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes [which is linked to obesity] among preteens. Type 2 used to be called adult onset diabetes, but we can't call it that anymore because it is onsetting with adolescents and even preteen kids. The way I put it is: when preteens are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, they can expect to have vision problems in their 20s, a heart attack by the time they're 30, total renal failure by the time they're 40--and they'll be dead by 50.

How did you get involved with the campaign?

President Clinton called me three weeks ago out of the blue. I was stunned. We have a good relationship, but I'm not expecting him to pop in and say howdy. He said the AHA had approached him and he said that what I was doing in Arkansas with the Health Initiative and what I'd done personally was impressive, and he asked me to serve with him as co-chair of this campaign. I thought it really fit with what I am immersed in myself.

You recently said that two years ago you would have been "about the worst role model you could have had." What changed?

There were actually several factors. There was [good friend] Gov. Frank White's death from a heart attack, my own diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and a heart catheterization, which scared the daylights out of me--though [the test came out] clear, thank God. I was at my heaviest in the spring of 2003, at least 280 pounds at the time. I knew I was unhealthy and I didn't want to be this way. I'd tried all those [weight-loss] programs and they hadn't worked for me. It's not that any are bad; they can all be incorporated into a lifestyle. But I looked at it like I just needed that one program, just needed to lose weight. Then I realized it was more about what went on in my mind than what went into my mouth.

You've lost more than 100 pounds. How long did it take to lose the weight?

About a year. And I don't take any medication for diabetes now. I was able to completely reverse that.

Your book about the experience comes out this month. What makes it different than other weight-loss books?

I tell readers in an honest way that there is no quick fix, it comes down to taking charge of your health. I lived a lifetime of bad habits, and I figured out how to turn it around. I don't want this book to be a replacement for the South Beach or Atkins diet books, I think my book complements any weight-loss plan and takes it a step further. There are great books on dieting, nutrition and exercise. My book explains how to bring it all together. We need to change from saying, "I need to lose weight," to saying, "I need to get healthy." Because with weight loss, you typically have programs with a start and an end. But health and fitness are lifetime commitments.

How did you come up with your "12-stop" program?

I wanted to focus on something people could remember, and I wanted it to be progressive.

What was the hardest step--or stop--for you?

The hardest for me was: stop sitting on the couch. I loathed the idea of exercise. I would think, I have a dozen things on my to-do list and here I am walking around the block. I thought that if I was exercising--and here's where my type A personality comes through--and if I was not producing or accomplishing something from the activity, then what was the point? I hadn't realized I could quantify my health.

So how did you motivate yourself to exercise?

I realized that if it was important for me to take care of myself and to live longer, I had to set aside time dedicated to exercising and keep it as religiously as any appointment on my calendar that day. People ask me how I find the time to exercise. I tell them, I don't. I make it.

Has it been tough to stick with it?

It's a critical part of my life now. I'd never been athletic. My last run was in the eighth grade when sadistic gym teachers forced us to run the mile. I hated it. But in March, I ran 26 miles for the Little Rock Marathon. I still can't believe I did that. And I did it and felt terrific ... When my wife, Janet, and I were in D.C. for President Bush's inaugural activities, we were invited to sit in the president's box during the parade. I was training for the marathon then, and I had to run five miles that day. So my wife went to the parade while I watched it on TV as I ran five miles on the treadmill at the hotel. I started laughing midrun because it hit me, wow, I must be really serious about this [to give up that invitation].

You've said you'll make health care a top priority when you take the helm of the National Governors Association this summer. Are you going to focus on obesity?

I will be taking on obesity and other issues involving changing the culture of health from treating chronic disease to seeking to prevent them. If you look at the early 1900s when most Americans were dying prematurely from infectious diseases like smallpox, malaria, whooping cough and diphtheria, the public-health community and government came together and said we need to deal with these issues--vaccinate people, find cures, clean up the water supply and the food supply. They tackled it as a public-health problem and, in a reasonably short period of time, we eliminated most of these diseases. We need to do the same thing with chronic disease [such as obesity].

How well has the Healthy Arkansas initiative worked?

We starting giving employees $20 off their insurance premiums each month for doing a health-risk assessment. And 18,000 signed up for that. Then we figured, we were giving people breaks to walk outside and smoke, so why not give employees 30 minutes a day to exercise that's not on their lunch hour? We provide cessation tools to smokers like nicotine gum and patches. We're doing that with state employees and with Medicaid patients. Last month, on our Web site, we listed every walking trail in the state by county.

How do you plan to implement the initiative on a national level?

No one state has all the answers, but everyone has a piece of the puzzle. It's important to get together and share ideas. We look at what other states are doing, too. The heart of this initiative is about changing the culture of health, not just creating a program for health. We have a culture of disease: how to treat it, how much to spend on it, how to cure it. But we don't focus on how to prevent it.

Can we legislate healthier lifestyles?

Attitude changes behavior, not the other way around. I personally don't think the government should put a tax on cheeseburgers or regulate the size of a steak. That would create absolute disaster. Then you shift the debate to one of personal rights from one of good health ... We should make it the cultural norm to practice healthy habits. No one ever asked me how to gain weight. But thousands have asked me how I lost weight.