An Extreme Athlete Fights Obesity

Family Health
on March 1, 2009
Ann Wade Parrish

Soon after Christy Swaid married and moved to Alabama in 2002, she learned a sobering statistic: Her new home state ranked in the top three in the country for obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Immediately her heart went out to the many children who were learning poor health habits from the start. "It makes me want to cry,"she says. "These children are dragging around a ball and chain, an unnecessary handicap."

For someone like Christy, it's hard to imagine not being healthy and fit. A six-time world champion jet skier, Christy began racing—and winning—at age 15. "I have this odd talent for riding jet skis fast," she says with a modest smile. As the world of extreme sports exploded in the late 1980s and early '90s, Christy competed all over the globe, tearing through obstacle courses in oceans, lakes, rivers—even a water-filled stadium in Paris—scooping up awards and marketing deals along the way.

By the late 1990s, she was performing as a stunt double on Baywatch. There was just one problem. "I had these big, thick muscles—I looked like a bulldog," Christy says. "But here I was, doubling for stick-thin girls." Her challenge: to find a way to be lean, quick and strong. A tough new training program—a combination of sound nutrition and low-impact, high-intensity aerobic workouts—paid off. Christy reached a peak level of fitness, ranking in the top less-than-one-percent of the U.S. population.

That emphasis on good food plus heart-healthy exercise became the basis for HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) Alabama, a non-profit organization Christy founded soon after moving to Birmingham. Working out of her laundry-room-turned-office, Christy teamed up with her neurosurgeon husband and other Alabama professionals to design a disease-prevention program for local schools. The curriculum, created by two university P.E. instructors and a childhood nutritionist, focuses on getting kids to eat right and start moving. Armed with heart rate monitors, teachers show curious fifth graders how to safely get their hearts pumping. To Christy, that's what it's all about. "When you're in your maximum heart rate zone, you're breathing hard, sending oxygen to the brain and extremities," she says. "It's like putting your brain on Miracle-Gro."

HEAL Alabama is growing, too. After launching in two Birmingham schools, the program now serves 1,000 children in eight schools statewide. Christy hopes to add more Alabama schools, and then branch out to other states. Early reports show that HEAL kids are in better shape and making better food choices than other students. Plus, those who are most at risk for obesity have lowered their body mass index, or BMI. "That gives me goosebumps," Christy says.

But it doesn't end in the classroom. A mother of two small boys, Christy urges parents to practice healthy habits at home. "Go outside and chase your kids around with a game of I'm-gonna-get-you," Christy says. "Take them on daily walks so they can see you exercising, too." And if your kid refuses to eat broccoli? "Don't give up," Christy says. "Insist, insist, insist."


Found in: Family Health