Lighten Up Brooklyn uses humor and fun to combat obesity

July 20, 2012 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Ben Vereen and Marty Markowitz holding pedometers
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“Lighten Up Brooklyn,” Borough President Marty Markowitz’s annual day to promote a healthy lifestyle and combat obesity, gave Borough Hall Plaza a festive air yesterday.

People stood in line to have their weight taken, took “power walks” down Montague Street, did group exercises to music. They received free T-shirts, bottles of water and “pedometers,” which measure the number of steps you take.

Beyond the hoopla, however, were some sobering facts. According to the state Department of Health, 59.3 percent of all Brooklyn adults are overweight or obese, and 10.5 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes. Nearly 7,000 people in Brooklyn are hospitalized for diabetes every year.

In low-income neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and Brownsville, where the main sources are food are bodegas and fast-food outlets, Markowitz said, the figures are even higher.

And no matter where you are, today’s children are more likely to be behind the computer screen than out on the ball field. “When I was a kid,” said Markowitz, “we were always out there playing stickball, punchball. Today, kids are on their devices, their iPads, iPhones.”

Just like every year since “Lighten Up Brooklyn” began in 2002, Markowitz had a big star to help him out Ben Vereen, the Brooklyn-born star of such Broadway shows as “Sweet Charity,” “Pippin,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Chicago.”

Vereen, surely the event’s most animated and energetic speaker, pointed out that diabetes isn’t only caused by overeating it’s also genetic. When he first found out he had diabetes, he wondered how that could have happened, since he’s constantly dancing and performing.

“But I decided to become an example to other people who have diabetes,” he said.

Vereen, who asked people to give thanks to “God, Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, whoever you believe in,” made it clear that he wasn’t espousing a puritan lifestyle. “You can have the cake,” he said. “But make it just one slice of the cake.

“You’ve heard about the tree that grows in Brooklyn,” he said. “Well, we can be that tree.”

As usual, Markowitz made fun of his own pudgy weight. “You can look at me, and look at Ben Vereen, and you can see who dances on stage and who needs to lighten up,” he said.

On another occasion, he said, “I was a chubby kid, and I was a chubby adult.”
Gwen Ro of Bootcamp Aerobics puts the crowd through their paces.
He also weighed in, to pardon the expression, on the controversy involving Mayor Bloomberg’s bid to ban sales of sugary drinks in sizes more than 16 ounces. He made it clear that he opposes the ban.

The key, he said, is moderation, not prohibition. “You can have a diet soda, or juice, or a smaller size. Look at me. I have a banana and yogurt for breakfast it’s the rest of the day I have a problem with,” he said to much laughter.

All kidding aside, the borough president himself discovered the need to exercise and watch his weight after he suffered a heart attack in 2006.

Others who spoke at the press conference included Deputy Borough President Sandra Chapman, Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey, and representatives of Preferred Health and HealthNet. The Parks Department, HealthNet, Preferred Health and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were all sponsors of the event.

Among those who led exercises on the plaza throughout the day were Body Sculpt of NY, Shape Up NYC, the Dodge YMCA, Sessions by Sara, Raizes do Brasil Capoeira, the Mark Morris Dance Company, and Bootcamp Aerobics by Gwen Roe.

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