TAMPA — When Sharon Davis found out she was going to become a grandmother, she decided she also was going to become healthier.
So she quit smoking. She worked out on and off at the South Tampa Family YMCA, yet noticed a weight gain. She exercised more consistently, but couldn't get back to her normal weight.
Then she heard about a diabetes prevention program that gave her the nutrition education and support she needed.
"I wanted to be in good shape to help take care of my granddaughter," said Davis, 63. "Most importantly, I didn't have diabetes and I wanted to keep it that way."
The YMCA Diabetes Prevention Program that did so much for Davis could do even more for the nation, according to a new study in the current issue of the journal Health Affairs.
Public health researchers at Emory University calculated that if baby boomers at risk for diabetes and heart disease could join a proven weight-loss program before they turn 65 and join Medicare, the program could save $15 billion in treatment costs over the boomers' lifetimes.
What's proven to work? Study authors point to a health education program similar to one already in place at 40 of the nation's YMCAs, including 14 centers in Tampa.
The program, created jointly by the YMCA of the USA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be offered in St. Petersburg YMCAs next spring.
Davis paid $50 to participate. But study authors said losing just a little weight — less than 10 percent — has such an impact on medical costs, it would be a bargain for the government to fund it.
"Most of the growth in health care spending is linked to rising rates of diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure — all conditions that weight loss can help reduce,'' said lead study author Kenneth Thorpe, a professor at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health.
''Why not shift the focus to keeping people healthy?"
Other studies have established that many people enter Medicare at age 65 with costly health problems, especially since the economy has left more people without health insurance.
But covering prevention programs — especially starting before age 65 — would represent a major shift in government-funded health care. The vast majority of Medicare spending goes to treat disease, not maintain health.
That's a mind-set that a lot of Americans apparently have embraced, according to those who recruit participants in the YMCA program.
"Our struggle has been getting people to sign up," said Maureen "Mo" Chiodini, associate vice president of membership and program at the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA.
"They say, 'I don't have diabetes, I don't need the class.' "
Still, the program met its first-year goal of enrolling 100 people. Chiodini hopes more people will see the value in prevention and sign up.
Later this fall, the YMCA plans to take the program to employee groups, churches, recreation centers, anywhere there is interest and five to 15 willing participants.
Why does the 16-week program work? Experts say it's because it tackles weight management from all angles and offers long-lasting strategies for maintenance.
Each weekly class has a specific focus such as how to be a fat-gram detective, stress management or staying motivated.
"We have specially trained YMCA lifestyle coaches who facilitate each meeting, but it's really an accountability group where the participants help each other make positive changes," said Chiodini, who oversees the program.
"This isn't for people who have diabetes. It's for those who have risk factors to develop it, they're overweight or have high blood pressure, or are diagnosed with prediabetes.''
Participants must be at least 18 years old. The fee helps ensure commitment but can be adjusted for those who can't afford it.
"The physicians who developed our program found that when people lost 7 percent of their body weight, they reduced their risk of diabetes by 58 percent," said Chiodini.
"There's no magic pill. This is no fad diet. We teach healthy behaviors that focus on losing weight and keeping it off."
Davis, a petite woman who dropped 13 pounds between May and August, is now in the maintenance phase of the program.
She learned how to keep a food log of calories and fat grams, how to shop for healthy foods and order in restaurants, and the importance of an active lifestyle. She also learned about getting back into clothes that hadn't zipped before. And about feeling good enough to keep up with her granddaughter.
"It was life changing," she said.
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected]