Just after the ring of the bell heralding the New Year, millions of persons nationwide promise themselves and their loved one that they’ll pay more attention to physical fitness. They’ll vow to exercise more and take off the extra pounds. They’ll stop smoking. They’ll cut down on rich food and drink. If you’ve promised to skip the double cheeseburger, “taco Tuesday” and “pizza Friday,” then the city of Lancaster would like to congratulate you.

Earlier this month, participants, partners and local residents joined representatives of the city of Lancaster and Antelope Valley Partners for Health (AVPH) to learn the outcome of a yearlong competition designed to encourage everyone to “Eat Right, Stay Active and Live Well.” This mantra helped one woman, Ana Perfecto-Stone, and hundreds of other participants change their old habits, shed a few pounds and improve their overall well-being because of a family-friendly competition called the YOLO (You Only Live Once) Lancaster Wellness Challenge.

You Only Live Once

The competition was not anything like television’s “The Biggest Loser.” There were no cameras, no flashy scenery or melodramatic backstories. Participants earned points by visiting their doctor, getting regular exercise, participating in support groups and making sensible, practical meal choices when dining out. The results were dramatic: participants accumulated more than 20,000 total points throughout the year.

More than 400 Antelope Valley residents participated in the program. In all, they cut their consumption of sugary drinks by 15 percent and reduced their intake of fatty, high-sodium fast food meals by 25 percent. This reportedly resulted in both weight loss and reduction of body fat for all participants. Overall, the number of people who said they are leaning toward more healthy food options when dining out more than doubled from the previous year.

Perfecto-Stone won $5,000 for her efforts, having logged the most points during the competition. Additional prizes were awarded to Carolann Roberts (biggest weight loss); Rosaly Young (most fitness activities logged); Robert Howard (most preventative screenings) and Adel Domingo for the most healthy meals logged.

People are exercising more

“With the YOLO Lancaster Wellness Challenge, we seek to encourage and motivate each other to adopt healthy lifestyles, so that we can feel healthier, happier, and enjoy life even more,” said Lancaster Councilman Ken Mann.

The Affordable Care Act via Covered California and other health services such as Medi-Cal and Medicare have encouraged somewhat of a “seismic shift” in the nation’s attitude about personal health awareness. Statistics find individuals are exercising more, adhering to a more nutritious diet; smoking and excessive alcohol use are in decline. The YOLO program has tried to tailor its outreach efforts to encourage more persons to join and get back into good physical condition.

“We’ve fine-tuned the program to make it easier to join, log activities, and take the first steps toward achieving better health and wellness,” said Elizabeth Brubaker, director of Lancaster Housing and Revitalization. The city for the past few years has encouraged residents to exercise more (i.e. installing more walking trails at parks) and is constructing more mixed-use developments which promote more pedestrian traffic rather than unnecessary car travel.

You don’t have to pay to enroll in the YOLO Challenge and the only long-term commitment involves your personal fitness goal.

Making fitness fun and easy

“We’re excited to announce we’ve opened up the program to teens this year,” said Michelle Kiefer, executive director of AVPH. Youth between 13 and 17 years must have parental approval to enroll. “Youth can participate in organized activities such as Zumba, yoga, toning as well as the many self-directed activities and events. Our goal is to make it fun and easy for everyone to live a happy, healthier lifestyle.”

There could be good reason why Lancaster and other communities are placing more emphasis on personal health management. The Antelope Valley has some of the county’s newest medical facilities, including Kaiser Permanente and City of Hope, along with Antelope Valley Hospital and Palmdale Regional Medical Center. However, some of these facilities are reportedly being stretched thin because of increased enrollment in Medi-Cal and the steady stream of Covered California enrollees. The California Healthcare Foundation (CHF) reported that from 1993 to 2011, the number of physicians in California has increased by 39 percent, outpacing the state’s 20-percent increase in population. Despite the encouraging news from the CHF that there appear to be more physicians being hired, there remains an increased demand for doctors because Covered California—and the state’s aging population—has led to a rise in persons seeking medical care.

Two years ago the Association of American Medical Colleges revealed that just 16 of California’s 58 counties had the federal government’s recommended supply of primary care physicians, with the Inland Empire and the San Joaquin Valley facing the worst shortages. Also, nearly 30 percent of the state’s doctors are nearing retirement age, representing the highest percentage in the nation.

Officials with the YOLO Challenge celebrate the advantages of preventative health measures which can be personally beneficial because the more an individual maintains good dietary and exercise habits, the less need for visits to the doctor (outside of regularly scheduled checkups).

‘Owning’ your health

AVPH serves as a catalyst that enhances community health, wellness and quality of life in the Antelope Valley through collaboration of local residents, agencies, faith-based organizations and government entities. Among the long-term goals are to decrease the rates of morbidity and mortality, increase the number of families and children accessing health and social services, and increasing the linkage and numbers of referrals for families to health care service providers and programs. They also want area children to meet age-appropriate health development markers. The organization works to identify the vulnerable and underserved population locally—including adults and children living at or below the poverty level—who generally have no access to health care services and must overcome various geographic barriers caused by residing in the area. This is particularly true of persons living in the more rural areas of the Antelope Valley who often are not in close proximity to a hospital.

Officials at AVPH believe that if the community can better maintain good health then the increase in obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems can be diminished. It all starts with the individual and how he or she treats their body.

Beware of fad diets

Taking ownership of your health is among the prime objectives of AVPH, and good health maintenance begins with good nutrition. The website FamilyDoctor.org offers many valuable tips for good health, and suggests that you ask your doctor during your next check-up the following questions:

—Do I need to change what I eat? Talk to your doctor about a medical problem or a risk factor such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. If you have either of these conditions, ask your doctor if your health can be improved by better nutrition. Tell the doctor if diabetes, cancer, heart disease or osteoporosis runs in your family. Ask about what foods you should eat and whether you should take vitamins. If a diet is suggested, ask your physician if you’d benefit by seeing a registered dietitian or any member of a healthcare team who specializes in nutrition counseling.

—Won’t it be hard to change my eating habits? It can be difficult to step away from your favorite cuisine, but not impossible. Your doctor will likely say that the key is selecting healthy foods and staying in touch with your physician and/or dietitian so they’ll be aware of your progress. Find the strong and weak points of your regular diet. Do you eat four to five cups of fruits and vegetables each day? Do you get enough calcium? Do you eat whole-grain, high-fiber foods regularly? Also, keep track of your food intake by writing down what you eat and drink each day. This record can help you see if you need to eat more from any food groups (e.g. fruits, vegetables, dairy products) or if you need to eat less of a group such as processed or high-fat foods.

—Can I trust nutrition information I get from newspapers or magazines? Always check with your doctor before embarking on any diet. For instance, so-called “short-term” diets may help you lose weight, but they are hard to keep and may even be unhealthy for you. Multiple vitamins are good for you, but they don’t supply good daily nutrition. Your body benefits most from eating healthy, whole foods. And while you’re at it, try a variety of new foods. Each day on television or radio people hear about others who have used a diet program or product “guaranteed” to help you lose weight. These persons are usually paid to endorse the product and results usually vary per individual. Very often, people will regain weight or another problem will develop after one of these “miracle” weight-loss cures.

—What changes can I make in my diet? There’s lots you can do. Instead of frying meat, try baking, grilling or broiling it. Take the skin off poultry; eat fish at least once a week. Nutritionists suggest you reduce extra fat (butter or margarine on bread or sour cream on baked potatoes) and use low-fat salad dressing. Eat plenty of fruit or vegetables with your meals. When dining out, avoid large portions and watch out for “hidden fats” in salad dressings and desserts. Practice reading nutrition labels on food before you buy them. Also, drink no- or low-calorie beverages like water or unsweetened tea. Avoid sugar-sweetened drinks like fruit juice, regular soda, energy drinks and sweetened or flavored milk.

Cold-weather exercise

It’s the cold season in the Antelope Valley, therefore many people may skip regular exercise. The National Institutes of Health suggest these simple ways to stay fit even on the coldest days:

—Go for walks indoors (e.g. a shopping mall or gymnasium);

— Purchase hand weights or stretch bands for home “resistance” exercise;

— Buy or rent an exercise DVD;

— Take the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Fit in walk breaks when you can;

— Do “active” housework like sweeping, mopping, vacuuming or even window washing;

— Join a gym or a health club. Better yet, invest in a stationary bike, treadmill or stair climber.

If you prefer to exercise outdoors during cold or chilly weather, you can rake leaves, sow a garden, walk the dog or shovel snow (with moderation for persons with heart disease). Outdoor activity requires a warm hat or cap and a scarf to cover your nose and mouth. Wear layers of clothing to stay warm, and if possible, waterproof outer layers to stay dry. Wool clothing is best for retaining body heat.

As in any new diet or exercise routine, always check with your doctor before beginning.