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Turning to a sensible approach in improving health by losing weight

By Kathy Chaffin
Salisbury Post
In Gary Marino’s Italian family, food equaled love.
“I say in my talks that the joke in my family was ‘no more, please’ meant ‘one more serving,’ ” he said after an appearance at Food Lion corporate headquarters Friday as part of the Million Step March sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
In 2001 at age 33, 5-foot-9-inch Marino weighed 397 pounds. “I like to call it a Super Bowl party away from 400,” he said.
Like other overweight people, Marino had begun to develop health problems: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea. His doctors told him he could face an early death if he didn’t lose weight.
That’s when Marino ó a Massachusetts businessman ó made the decision to live. “I decided to be very vigilant about my health,” he said, “and take responsibility and turn it around.”
Marino started seeing a nutritionist to help him change his diet, a therapist to address the emotional issues behind his overeating and a fitness trainer to develop an exercise program to meet his needs. His Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance policy paid most of the cost of the nutritionist and therapist.
“The only thing I paid for was the fitness trainer,” he said. “What I tell people is you can’t put a price on your health.”
Over the next three years, Marino said he lost 150 pounds, “about 50 pounds a year.”
“In the process of trying to fix myself, I researched the biggest epidemic in this country,” he said. The more he read, the more passionate Marino became about not only becoming healthy himself but helping others to regain their health as well.
He started a nonprofit, Generation Excel, to provide education and support for people and organizations dedicated to fighting food addiction “the sensible way.”
In 2004, Generation Excel launched its first major event ó “The Million Calorie March.” The 1,200-mile fitness walk in April of that year stretched from Florida to Boston to raise funding for programs designed to educate and inspire the 65 percent of Americans dealing with weight problems to kick-start their own recoveries.
Walking 10 to 15 miles per day, Marino was often joined by children and adults as he made his way up the East Coast.
A year later, he hosted “The Million Pound Meltdown” in Pennsylvania. Sponsored by Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania and two area television stations, the health campaign challenged overweight individuals in the area to lose a combined 1 million pounds.
The yearlong effort started with a 14-day walking and talking tour by Marino and included ongoing coverage by the two television stations.
Participants in the campaign lost a total of 51,000 pounds. “That was actually confirmed by primary care physicians,” he said.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina took notice of The Million Pound Meltdown, Marino said, and contacted him about doing a similar campaign here. The 600-mile Million Step March kicked off April 1 in Asheville, making its way to Salisbury on Friday.
Marino, who is now 40, and the Blue Cross team walked four miles into Salisbury, arriving at Food Lion corporate headquarters around 11 a.m. Food Lion, a sponsor of the campaign, offered to provide food for healthy cooking demonstrations by local chefs as part of the event.
“Food Lion has a lot of wellness programs going on right now,” he said, “and we, as a thank you, made a stop at corporate headquarters.”
One of the Blue Cross team members accompanying Marino on the walk is Kathy Higgins, vice president of community relations for Blue Cross.
“She was working on a Habitat for Humanity project nine years ago,” he said, “when she took a fall that almost resulted in the amputation of her legs. And here she is walking the Million Step March 600 miles across the state.
“We hope that we can inspire people because we’re just regular people.”
The Million Step March includes 60 events all across the state in 75 days. “The beautiful thing about a campaign like this,” Marino said, “is it feels like we’re all in this together.”
By talking to people at gatherings scheduled as part of the walk, he said he is able to connect with others dealing with weight issues and hopefully inspire them to start their own programs of healthy eating and exercise.
“I’m not a celebrity or a sports star,” Marino said. “I’m just a guy next door who’s managed to have a measurable degree of success.
“I tell them my story about how far I’ve come. I’m still trying to lose another 40 to 50 pounds, so I tell them about my continuing struggle … I don’t preach, that’s for sure.”
Marino said he and his wife, Julie, who have been married 15 years, put off having a child until he had dealt with his obesity.
“I was very conscious that I was 400 pounds and not healthy,” he said, “and I felt it would have been irresponsible to have children in my 20s or early 30s.”
They now have a 21-month-old named Desmond.
“The ironic part is I’ll be a better parent now at 40 than I ever would have been in my 20s or 30s,” Marino said.
Marino talks about his battle with weight and the obesity epidemic in his book, “Big & Tall Chronicles: Misadventures of a Lifelong Food Addict!” recently released nationally by Barnes & Noble Bestsellers.
He also produced a documentary, “Million Calorie March,” chronicling his journey of obesity and weight loss. The film is on the U.S. Film Circuit, and Marino said he hopes it will be picked up for national distribution.
He has appeared on ABC’s “Live with Regis & Kelly” and has been featured in People Magazine and USA Today.
His plans for the future include more educational and walking campaigns to help battle America’s obesity epidemic.
“It’s about the long-term fix and not the short-term fix,” he said. “It’s not about looking like a model. It’s about your health. It’s about being around for your kids and your grandkids.”
North Carolinians may sign up to participate in the Million Step March campaign at BetterHealthNC. com. By keeping a log of how far they walk, participants can win prizes and hopefully begin walking and living healthier lifestyles.
Readers may contact Marino at gary@millionstepmarch.com.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.

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