Up for the Challenge

Now celebrating its 10th year, the Beth Challenge has inspired community members to shed pounds and lead healthier lives. 

Getting people excited about nutritious eating isn’t easy—but with the support of Newark Beth Israel (NBI) and Children’s Hospital of New Jersey, a creative idea by an NBI dietitian 10 years ago did just that. Modeled after the hit NBC r eality show “The Biggest Loser,” The Beth Challenge began in 2009 as a 12-we ek weight-loss competition for NBI employees. It has since spread to houses of worship, police and fire departments, the Essex County Executive offices and even Newark City Hall.

The program now extends to communities beyond Newark as well. Participants in The Beth Challenge get information, support and weekly weigh-ins on-site at their church or at work, with the option to also get their blood pressure and body composition read. To date, a whopping 25,000 combined pounds have been shed. At right, successful “losers” tell their stories of mastering the Challenge, with the help of their church community.

‘I’m exercising four to five times a week.’
“I got involved with Th e Beth Challenge because I understood the power of my offi ce and I thought if I joined, more folks would want to get involved,” says Rev. Philip Gilmore, 55, Pastor at St. John’s Community Baptist Church in Newark, who has hosted the Challenge at his church since it began. He has lost 30 pounds over the years. “Even though everyone in my church knows how much I love French fries, I’ve expanded my vegetable repertoire. I’m exercising four to five times a week, which I didn’t do before the Challenge.”

About 35 parishioners take part each year. “It has definitely made people much more cognizant of what they eat,” he says. “At church events, rather than having fried chicken, we’ll have baked, and we serve more vegetables. “The Scriptures tell us that our body is the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells, so we need to take care of it,” Rev. Gilmore says. “I think to make the ‘easy’ choice to eat right prepares the will to make the right choices for the greater challenges of life.”

‘I’m no longer prediabetic.’
When her doctor told her that she was prediabetic, Gale Bennett, 67, a retired hospital supervisor, knew it was time to make a change. “My mother was a diabetic and so is my sister, and I didn’t want to be on medication for the rest of my life,” she says. Gale joined The Beth Challenge at Clear View Baptist Church in Newark, and dropped from 239 pounds to 212 pounds. “I feel like being part of a group challenge made me more accountable,” she says. This year, she was the first-place winner at her church, based on percentage of weight lost. “That was a nice surprise!” she says.

Today, Gale has lost a few more pounds and her health is back on track. “My A1C [a measure of blood sugar
levels over the prior two to three months] has dropped in the normal range so I’m no longer prediabetic,” she says. “I’m feeling really good.”

‘As simple as a walk in the park.’
Marcina Rivera, 42, has had a lifelong passion for fitness. A community outreach/patient navigator at a local hospital, she is also a volunteer health and wellness ambassador for Community Chapel of Christ Ministries in Newark. Th ere, she helps church members participating in Th e Beth Challenge by conducting weekly weigh ins, providing encouragement and hosting healthy eating demonstrations. “I was looking for a way to help the community live healthier lives,” Marcina says. “I wanted to let the church community know that in order for us to continue to do what we’re doing, we have to be healthy.”

Marcina says that thanks to NBI’s support, she received a certification that has enabled her to become a Zumba instructor. Community members can take free Zumba classes offered by Marcina and other church ambassadors at NBI’s Rev. Dr. Ronald B. Christian Community Health and Wellness Center on the first Saturday of every month at 9 a.m. Marcina wants people to know that working out doesn’t have to be a chore. “It can be as simple as doing resistance exercises at home or taking a walk in the park,” she says.

Losing it--the right way
“I originally created The Beth Challenge to boost morale and make hospital employees more aware of healthy eating, because healthcare workers don’t necessarily take care of themselves,” says Barbara Mintz, MS, RD, Senior Vice President, Healthy Living and Community Engagement at RWJBarnabas Health. She expected about 50 NBI employees to sign up that first year, but instead a staggering 500 joined the challenge.

Whether you plan to participate in The Beth Challenge or simply want to lose weight on your own, ignore the latest diet trends, she says. “There are a lot of myths out there. We’re trying to teach people that there’s not an easy fix and you have to do it the right way. Don’t go on a fad diet, and don’t starve yourself.” For instance, she advises against the popular Ketogenic (Keto) Diet, which drastically reduces carbohydrates in favor of high-protein and/or high-fat foods.“You may lose a lot of weight initially, but I have never seen people keep weight off with this plan,” she says.

The best way to eat, Mintz says, is to balance your meals and keep some sensible tips in mind: “Choose complex carbs like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Make greens the base of your plate, and not meat and potatoes. And have a little lean protein like eggs, chicken or fish and/ or good fats like nuts and avocado at each meal.” Try to fit in 30 to 60 minutes of exercise every day, Mintz advises. “Exercise is the key to longevity,” she explains. “Your weight will come down—and so will your blood pressure and cholesterol.”

Free nutrition and fitness classes are available at Newark Beth Israel medical Center's Rev. Dr. Ronald B. Christian Community Health and Wellness Center, which is located on the hospital campus. For more information on wellness classes and activities, call: 888.724.7123.