After a successful career as a professional body builder, Lee Labrada has built a successful nutrition company that bears his name. But perhaps the most important job for this self-proclaimed “fitness evangelist” is to spread the word in the fight against obesity; a fight he has already begun to win in Houston, which lost its title as fattest city after Labrada became its Fitness Czar.

Ci: Can you tell us a little about the Get Lean Houston campaign?

We launched the Get Lean Houston program in June of 2002 as an 18-month program. Mayor Lee Brown and myself launched it partly as a response to Houston's place on top of the “Fattest Cities” list in Men's Fitness. But it was also a way to address the issue of obesity in the city of Houston. I have always contended that obesity is not one city's problem but it is America's problem. We wanted to do what we could here on the local level to raise awareness and educate people.

Ci: What were some of those things?

The first thing we did was launch a Web site where I put a 12-week fitness program and nutrition program that anyone could download free of charge. We also led walks with the Houston Astros baseball team. We held the first fat drive where people pledged their fat pounds. We even partnered with McDonald's to raise awareness.

Ci: What were the parameters of that relationship?

Well, you have McDonald's that is traditionally a fast food, high-calorie restaurant, but they were excellent corporate citizens and really stepped up to the plate. We developed a line of 10 low-fat menu items. They supported that with cutouts of myself promoting the menu at all 298 local McDonald's restaurants, plus point-of-purchase items. This led to us getting together with the Houston Restaurant Owners Association, where several restaurants included lower-calorie and lower-fat items on their menus. It was all part of a multipronged approach to raise awareness and lead this call to action, while providing the information needed to actually get in shape.

Ci: Did local health clubs take part in the campaign?

Health clubs did get involved as well, such as the Houstonian, whose president sits on our advisory board. 24 Hour Fitness was active with a program called the Great Houston Melt-down. A lot of mom-and-pops jumped in as well. I think everyone took that title as the fattest city pretty seriously.

Ci: Do you feel clubs elsewhere can make a difference in this fight?

Clubs in general across the country could potentially be in a leadership position if they approach this from the bigger picture. Those clubs that are running to truly help people and not just sell memberships and doing the membership mill are going to be the winners in this. People are sick and tired of the quick fixes. They are sick and tired of the diets and fads.

We, as fitness professionals, know what works and that is a balanced diet and exercise. That is what people find at well-run health clubs. [Clubs] are in the position to take a leadership role and provide people the education and the means to fight this obesity problem we are facing.

Ci: That quick-fix problem is a big hill to climb for health clubs as the marketing behind most is substantial.

Let's face it, in the past there has been a percentage of clubs that has contributed to that “quick-fix” problem because they were interested in bringing people in and signing them up and not with following up and making sure they were seeing results and staying members. The key lies for club owners going forward in not just giving people a place to exercise but taking them under their wing so to speak, and showing them how to exercise and providing nutritional information and direction to help them achieve long-term weight loss and weight maintenance. Where these diets, fads and exercise gimmicks have led people astray is in providing isolated solutions. No diet pill or diet or exercise routine works by itself. It is a balance that provides the long-term cure.

Ci: People from your side — the nutrition and supplement industry — have a long track record of overpromising, too.

The supplement industry has had its share of unscrupulous marketers. But, people are wising up. In the past, people have been willing to blame themselves when the pill, diet or exercise routine didn't work. As my friend Phil Kaplan and I are fond of saying, this is the only industry — the “get in shape” industry to create an umbrella — where if the consumer uses a product and it doesn't work, he or she blames himself or herself. Try that in any other industry and you'll be laughed at. If you buy a refrigerator and it doesn't work you take it back, you don't blame yourself. But in our industry when something doesn't work — be it a pill, diet or exercise routine — the consumers blame themselves. So they drop out of the gym because “exercise doesn't work for me.” But consumers are getting smarter and they are looking for a solution, not just a gym membership.

Ci: What do you think has to happen to fix the obesity problem in America?

I think that it takes action. Everyone knows that they have to lose weight. Everyone knows that we have a problem with obesity in this country. You have those segments of the industry such as the clubs, supplement manufacturers, food manufacturers for the dietetic sector, etc. They need to come together and do something above and beyond the profit making and, quite frankly, the profit taking.

Ci: So these segments have to take responsibility for the problem and the solution?

This problem with obesity will need to be determined on three levels of responsibility: individual, corporate and government.

As for individual responsibility it is up to every citizen to educate themselves on how to exercise, what to eat and how to make inroads on creating a healthier, more fit life. As for corporate responsibility it is the food manufacturers, food marketers, restaurant chains, etc. It is important for them to be more forthcoming on what is in their products and explaining how their products influence a person's health. It is also part of their corporate responsibility to help educate people on making the right nutritional choices to help maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. As for the government's responsibility, it is important to become involved with programs such as Get Lean Houston, outreach programs where they can educate the citizens. There has to be things done to help educate the children as well as instituting or re-instituting physical education and nutrition as mandatory in the schools.

Ci: But do people have a high enough perceived value when it comes to health and physical activity?

I think that is the result of many, many years of getting our priorities wrong as a society. You hear about people not willing to spend $40 to join a gym, but if they realized that it'll cost that much just to step into a doctor's office after they have health problems caused by inactivity and bad diet — not to mention the loss of quality of life from not taking the proper maintenance and care of their body. People will spend $40 to tune up the car but they scoff at spending the money on a health club. They take care of their car but don't even think about their own well-being and their most important asset — their physical well-being.

Ci: How important is it to reach children with the message?

People need to push their kids out the door. As kids we played outside, but now as a parent I see that I have to limit my three boys' access to the electronic stuff and get them outside to play a little more. It is easy for the television to turn into a babysitter when children really need activity and interaction. These are the habits that become the way of life for children as they get older. I believe breaking the cycle of obesity begins at the level of teaching kids at home and at school about the importance of physical activity and proper nutrition.

Ci: And you see health clubs helping to get the message out to Americans?

Club owners are in an excellent position to be what I have coined a fitness evangelist. I consider myself to be a fitness evangelist, which is saying that I make a habit of telling every person I come in contact with the benefits they have to gain from eating healthy and exercising regularly. One of the things I do is send out an e-mail called Lean Body Coach to 60,000 people around the world that helps spread the word. I think club owners are in a great position to do this. Now is the moment and once they start the message it will spread.