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Mississippi grandparents lose weight, lament end of healthy lifestyles program

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ For more than six years, Ora Williams couldn't tie her shoes. For the overweight retiree from Hattiesburg, the strain of reaching her feet was too great, and trips to the mailbox were a struggle.

Now, thanks to a special program, the 72-year-old can tie her shoes effortlessly and do chores energetically.

Project Grandfamilies Health Watchers had a mission one year ago: to help about 20 grandparents lose weight and become healthier, more active caregivers for their grandchildren or foster children.

Program officials say that on average, the grandparents lost 4.7 percent of their body-mass index. Participants' blood pressure decreased an average of six points, while blood glucose levels were down three points.

``Exercise is directly related to improvement,'' said Sylvia Forster, who heads the Pine Belt Association for Families, which directed the program.

Williams said the program helped her lose 47 pounds. ``I am so proud of me. I put on some clothes that I could never even button up before,'' she said.

The one-year project, which ended last month, included weekly meetings at a hospital center where grandparents and grandchildren learned about eating healthy and exercising correctly, said Forster. Grandparents were also given memberships to the Hattiesburg YMCA.

``We wanted to turn around their eating habits,'' Forster said. ``They have horrible eating habits.''

Since joining the program, Williams has given up fried chicken and rice and gravy.

``That wasn't a healthy meal. That was a filling meal and we enjoyed it, but it wasn't healthy,'' she said. ``I don't cook like that anymore.''

Today's menu consists of baked chicken, squash, peas and cornbread made with canola oil.

Williams said her weight loss means she can do chores around the house without having to constantly take breaks to catch her breath. She is mopping, washing dishes, folding laundry and feeling strong.

``I found out if I sit around and don't move, I don't do as good as when I was walking and moving around,'' she said.

While taking on the responsibility of young children can be a hardship, Williams, who cares for her great-granddaughter Daija, 9, is among more than 48,061 grandparents across the state and 2.3 million nationwide who care for their children's children, according to census figures.

Daija was one of 25 children who graduated from the program; 16 of 20 grandparents finished.

``I think they are a little more conscious about eating right. I know the kids are because I hammer it into them,'' Forster said.

But now, the program that helped shape up these caregivers has spent its year's worth of funding and has been unable to raise more money. The program's end has left grandparents like Williams struggling to find a way to stay in shape. Williams says she can't afford to continue her YMCA membership now that it's no longer free, ``but I am gonna do all I can.''

The retiree enjoyed working out at the Y and, with her gray hair pulled into a loose bun, could often be spotted exercising on an elliptical machine.

The retiree plans to continue dieting and walking around her house and at a local park, when the weather isn't so hot.

``People are starting to do different things in their spare time,'' Forster said. ``The most rewarding thing is that nobody really wants to stop.''
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