Appointed by President George W. Bush as executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS), Melissa Johnson is looking to increase awareness of the need for physical activity and the council's various awards — and she is more than happy to work with the fitness industry to accomplish this. Johnson will chair a Fitness Summit entitled: Beyond the Bottom Line: Building a Healthier America — How the public and private sectors can work together for a fitter nation, at Club Industry East in Baltimore on Thursday, May 13 at 11:30 a.m.

Ci: What direction do you see the PCPFS taking in the fight against obesity?

We are part of a larger program and are one pillar in the President's Healthier US initiative. The president, Secretary Tommy G. Thompson (Secretary of Health & Human Services) and the Surgeon General are staunch advocates of fitness and are truly behind the PCPFS.

They are leading by example and are fully behind our program. We see the fact that obesity is a crisis now as an unfortunate situation for Americans. But it is a fortunate situation for those of us who have been and continue to fight against it because it creates a lot more media coverage and awareness. Right now, there is a very high level of awareness in this country so in a strange way the prevalence of obesity is helping spread the word about what to do to control its rise and reduce its hold.

One of our main focal points is the level of obesity in this country and that is where our signature program, the President's Challenge, is making its force felt.

Ci: That program has been around for some time. How is it now going to make more of a difference?

It has been around for a long time, but this particular version is really new. For instance, this past July we launched an interactive Web site, which raises its profile and makes it far more available to Americans of all ages. Many people still associate in their minds the President's Council with the Youth Fitness Test that so many of us took in school.

Our new motto is that the President's Challenge has grown up and anyone now can win a Presidential award. The awards aren't based on performance, per se, but based on participation in physical activity.

What we are trying to do is just encourage people to move at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Last year, seven million people won the awards, including children getting the fitness test award. From the Web site we have more than 40,000 people that logged on initially.

Ci: Can you give some detail about the award?

There are two components to the award. The first component is the President's Active Lifestyle Award (PALA), which is for people that are doing something from a list of more than 100 we provide. The second component is the President's Champion program, which is for people that are already active or would like something a little more challenging than the PALA. At the end of the President's Champion program the participant receives a gold, silver or bronze medallion with the President's signature on the back. That is built in so we can ensure continuity and consistency, rather than doing something for the six weeks the PALA requires then having them just stop or taper off.

Ci: That's a great message. Too often the media's attention turns to diet and not to activity. Do you think the fitness facility industry can benefit from these programs?

Part of the obesity epidemic comes from an equally large epidemic of physical inactivity and we are giving Americans the opportunity to break out of that cycle and receive recognition for their achievements. This is free and in the public domain, so a lot of individuals can use it. But a lot of organizations and groups are using it as a motivational tool. Some are using it as their sole corporate wellness program. We believe that this motivation and recognition can help all fitness facilities provide another motivational tool for their members as well.

As the new executive director, I am open and welcome to having health clubs contact me and see if we can't sit down and figure out the best way to work together and spread the message of the importance of fitness and incorporate our programs into their setting.

Ci: Have there been any partnerships with health clubs or other fitness institutions to this point?

We are talking with IHRSA, as well as some individual companies about getting involved. We see it as an excellent and natural partnership and offer it as a program for all health clubs. It is free and could be incorporated quite easily even by having the individual clubs set up a kiosk that members could log in their activity and work toward a Presidential award and could be used as a great cross-promotional aspect. A chain of clubs could even have clubs challenge each other and then use it as a motivational and fun aspect with the “winning” club not only getting the President's award, but the club could have some kind of prize for the winning members. This is a great way to have members feel like part of a community and encourage them to stay active within the club.

We did that as a pilot here at Health and Human Services. Sec. Tommy Thompson challenged us to do it this way, with departments vs. departments and divisions vs. divisions and now we are going to roll it out to all 65,000 employees.

Ci: It seems like the tradition of the President's Challenge would fit in well with the fitness industry's growing attention toward children.

A lot of children don't have the opportunity to get physical education in schools and this program can be incorporated into health club and community center children's programming and capture the attention of the children and not only give them the fun of being physically active, but give them a goal and an award for it as well.

There are also other opportunities. We have done clinics for people and are looking to open that up, so there is an opportunity for health clubs to become host sites for these, as well as maybe having fitness trainers teach a President's Council clinic. I'm open to discussing this with fitness professionals and seeing how we can work together.

Ci: The President's Council recently partnered with Burger King. Is there interest from companies that operate outside of fitness to get involved?

Everyone wants to be part of the solution. We are talking with different corporations and organizations to partner with us to help bring the education and inspiration to Americans and get them involved in our programs. We are also talking with several governors to have the President's Challenge adopted as the states' fitness plan.