Fitzgerald a poster boy in flesh for weight loss

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Allegheny County could stand to lose some weight. And six months ago, when an anti-obesity program was just a glimmer in his eye, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald realized he needed to shed a few pounds, too.

As he launches "Live Well Allegheny," a regional fitness initiative announced last week that aims to slim waistlines and build muscle tone across the county, Mr. Fitzgerald could very well hire himself as a spokesman. Since last summer, he has lost 30 pounds, dropping from 230 pounds to about 200.

His secret? Lots of brisk walks with his wife, Cathy, who also has cut sweets out of her husband's diet.

"I'm not breaking any new ground here," he said. "I feel better. I have more energy, my back feels better, my knees feel better."

At 54, Mr. Fitzgerald blames his girth on a slowing metabolism. Gone are the days that the former Carnegie Mellon engineering undergraduate can chow down on pizza and ice cream without a thought to where those pounds will end up.

He has plenty of company. In a 2010 county survey, 62 percent of residents qualified as overweight or obese, and 11 percent admitted they rarely exercised. Nearly 30 percent of Pennsylvania residents are obese, pushing the state's overall health ranking down to 29th in the nation, according to the United Health Foundation.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he needed to change his ways and, as he's encouraging his fellow residents to do now, he resolved to take action.

Most mornings, the county executive works out on an elliptical machine in his home gym while watching the news. His wife will sometimes join him, though she prefers the treadmill.

He pairs that with plenty of walking throughout the day, hustling between meetings and turning away the privilege of a county driver for short trips Downtown. "We leave the car parked," he said.

And then there are the many flights of courthouse stairs, which could reduce an Olympian to breathlessness. Unfortunately for his fitness regime, Mr. Fitzgerald's office is on the first floor.

The battle continues at the kitchen table. "The desserts, the ice cream, the hoagies. . . " -- all gone, the executive says. Aides say he's become much better at avoiding the office candy bowl, too.

Though, as any dieter knows, there are occasional relapses: "I'm not always good at it," he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald and Health Department director Karen Hacker hope county residents find it easier to follow his example. While the program has no dedicated funding, "Live Well Allegheny" will market separate health programs under one brand, providing residents a single portal to better fitness.

To that end, the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh has agreed to offer a free, one-week trial pass to individuals in 2014.

The program also plans to sponsor "community walks," getting residents on the road together. Mr. Fitzgerald especially likes this approach, saying his wife's encouragement has made a difference in his own weight loss.

"Having my wife partner with me has been very helpful," he said. "It's a community thing that people can do to help each other."

He's still looking to lose a bit more. With his 6-foot frame, he'll need to hit around 185 pounds before his body-mass index meets the federal definition of normal weight.

But 30 pounds is nothing to sneeze at -- and it's a milestone that comes with rewards. Amie Downs, Mr. Fitzgerald's spokeswoman, recently signed him up for a new official portrait. "If you're county executive, and you're not setting a good example, then how can you tell other people how to act?" he said.

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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