updated 3/18/2007 3:21:04 PM ET 2007-03-18T19:21:04

Arleen East started the year in a rut — overweight, sedentary and plagued by bouts of depression only deepened by her unflattering extra bulk.

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Since those dark days of winter, the 47-year-old single mother has dropped 16 pounds from her 5-foot-7 frame. She’s down to 192 and is pressing ahead with her goal to slim down to 145.

East credits her turnaround not just to sheer will, but to help from Indiana’s “10 in 10 Challenge,” an online program that commits participants to lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks and prods them with weekly e-mails filled with exercise and diet tips.

With obesity worsening across the nation, a growing number of states like Indiana are launching online initiatives to combat residents’ expanding waistlines. Proponents say online programs reach a vast audience, are relatively cheap and a quick way to let people know about upcoming fitness events and local resources.

‘Fed up with all the gimmicks’
Before she signed up with “10 in 10,” East said she would come home from her job as an information technology specialist for the state and plunk down before the TV with her two dogs, eating junk food “out of boredom.”

Her 19-year-old daughter Alisha, a college student, wasn’t around much, and East had all but stopped going out with friends.

But these days, she sticks to healthy fare like grilled chicken and vegetables, takes walks around downtown Indianapolis on her lunch hour and sweats away the pounds after work in aerobics classes at the YMCA near her Martinsville, Ind., home.

“I’ve been on the yo-yo diet thing for a few years and I really just got fed up with all the gimmicks. So I’m just trying to do it on my own now,” said East, who heard about the “10 in 10” program about the time she decided to make a change.

She said it’s helped her stay motivated with its tips, including the idea to schedule her aerobics class right after she gets home from work so she has no time to hit the couch.

The “10 in 10” program debuted in January with TV commercials showing Gov. Mitch Daniels jogging, pumping iron and bounding up stairs at the Indiana Statehouse as he exhorted Hoosiers to “log on and lighten up.” Since then, nearly 37,000 Indiana residents have signed up.

That’s the best response yet to “INShape Indiana,” the state’s multipronged effort to get people to eat healthy, get active and avoid tobacco, said Eric Neuburger, executive director of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Halfway through the 10-week program, 3,211 participants reported in an online survey a combined weight loss of 12,251 pounds — or an average of 3.8 pounds each.

Some version of “10 in 10” will likely return this summer, depending on funding and other fitness ideas under consideration.

Paying for health issues
Action to curtail obesity is badly needed for Indiana, which consistently ranks among the top 10 most obese states, and is second, behind Kentucky, in the percentage of adults who smoke, Neuburger said.

“We are paying for these health issues, whether directly or indirectly, and it has huge impact on the pocketbooks of normal Hoosiers,” he said.

Indiana is far from alone — it’s one of 17 states where at least 25 percent of the population is obese, according to 2005 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a report released in August by the Trust for America’s Health, the public health advocacy group said research suggests the nation would save $5.6 billion a year in costs associated with treating heart disease if just one-tenth of Americans began walking regularly.

Walking is one of the ideas behind Lighten Up Iowa, a Web-based four-month program that’s driven by teams who either track their minutes of activity, their weight-loss, or both.

More states connecting with dieters
Now in its sixth year, the Iowa program has doubled the number of participants to a total of 24,000. They reported losing more than 46,000 pounds and logging more than 12 million minutes of physical activity in January alone.

Lighten Up Iowa has been so successful that 17 other states have modeled their own programs after it, capitalizing on the Internet’s vast reach and ability to connect people, helping them stay motivated, said the program’s coordinator, Deborah Martinez. Its sponsor, the nonprofit Iowa Sports Foundation, recently launched a national version, Lighten Up America.

Although there’s no scientific data on the success rate of such programs, people who faithfully take part in them are certain to burn away fat and get in better shape, said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.

“From an intuitive point of view, any program that gives people the opportunity to weave any form of physical activity into their day-to-day life is beneficial,” he said.

The states’ efforts primarily target people who are already motivated, said Robin Hamre, team leader of a national nutrition and obesity prevention program at the CDC.

The federal health agency is trying to combat obesity more broadly with programs in 28 states that encourage fitness through efforts that include building sidewalks and walking trails, she said.

Hamre hopes Congress will fund the program for all 50 states. With obesity striking Americans of all backgrounds, and surging in children, she said action is needed now.

“We’re seeing the same thing in all age groups and all races. This is an equal opportunity epidemic,” she said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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