updated 6/1/2004 12:10:13 PM ET 2004-06-01T16:10:13

There are no complicated diets, pricey workout equipment or strict personal trainers.

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Participants of Lighten Up programs in 16 states from Maine to Hawaii are learning to make healthy choices by making small lifestyle changes: drinking one more glass of water each day; eating fruits and vegetables; taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

It’s making a difference in Wisconsin, a state where almost 58 percent of residents were overweight or obese in 2002, and cheese, beer and sausage are practically their own food groups.

“It’s not such a threatening thing anymore,” Sandi Tritz said of dieting and exercising since joining Lighten Up Wisconsin. “They weren’t so outlandish, like I had to run a marathon.”

Smallest improvements count
More than 20,500 people nationwide are involved in some form of Lighten Up, said Nicole Mueller, director of health initiatives for Wisconsin Sports Development Corp., a nonprofit sports management organization that runs the state’s version.

In Iowa, nearly 12,000 members lost about 23.5 tons of weight last year, or roughly four pounds per person, said Kim Nanke of Iowa Games, a nonprofit group that created the first Lighten Up program in 2002.

In Wisconsin, more than 1,700 people shed an average of 4.9 pounds midway through the five-month program.

Four to five pounds may not seem like much, but health experts say even the smallest improvements count because they can boost participants’ confidence to exercise more or improve their diets.

“Starting and losing five pounds of weight is better than not starting and gaining five pounds,” said Mary Kay Sones, a health specialist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Participants joined the Wisconsin program in teams, which turned in their collective weights in January and March. A final weigh-in next month will determine the three teams — out of 226 — that lost the most weight, earning them statewide recognition and medals.

“We never see their individual weight,” Mueller said. “They don’t have to feel so pressured as individuals.”

Weekly challenges add up
Each week the program offers a challenge, such as parking the car farther from the office, switching to 1 percent milk (cutting about 50 calories per cup), or using low-calorie condiments such as mustard or vinegar on sandwiches, instead of butter or mayonnaise.

Each challenge eliminates just a few calories at a time, but that adds up, said registered dietitian Cathy Alessi, a nutrition specialist for the Food and Nutrition Information Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Switching to a lower-calorie salad dressing cuts almost five pounds a year, she said. “Small changes do take longer, but most of the time, people find them more effective.”

Melissa Surek has lost at least 10 pounds since starting the program, partly because she doesn’t get discouraged. “It’s something easy enough where you can go, ’Oh, I can do that for a week,”’ said Surek, who works at a health clinic in Medford.

Other weight loss programs seemed to set her up for failure, such as one requiring 100 sit-ups every day. “Well, I can never stay with those,” she said. “The fact that it’s happening little by little, I think it’s a lot better.”

Tritz, a 53-year-old office worker from Marshfield, appreciates the support she gets from her six teammates, all co-workers. Her team lost 22 pounds by March.

“I’m finding that we’re able to connect with each other,” Tritz said. “Sometimes all you need is a glance.”

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

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