Richard Alexander

He was a lifelong "meat-and-potatoes" man with a self confessed weakness for Haagen Dazs Coffee ice cream. But these days, 66-year-old Rich Alexander talks like a man with a new lease on life - and a fresh outlook on healthy living.

In fact, he is.

Credit a decision to tackle serious weight issues and a determination to improve his overall health. Add in a mounting sense of urgency about shedding pounds. Then, introduce a free program that serves up support and encouragement while helping participants learn healthy food and exercise habits.

For Alexander, it was the path to better health.

A former west side resident who moved to Cle Elum in 1989, Alexander worked as a construction laborer and truck driver. Over time he put on weight, a problem that worsened after he was exposed to radiation at Hanford and developed thyroid issues. To complicate matters, a decade ago he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As a former EMT, he knew it was a serious health condition, "but until I started having side effects, I didn't realize how deadly it can be," he says.

Working with his primary care physician, Dr. Paul Schmitt of KVH Family Medicine - Cle Elum, he looked for ways to lose weight. "We talked about surgery, about gastric bypass, about the lap band," Alexander says. "But my insurance doesn't cover weight loss procedures."

Then he heard about Medicare Weight Management Classes, a series of 14 small group classes designed to help participants lose weight over six months. The program is covered by Medicare and there are no out-of-pocket costs. In October 2012, he signed up for classes in Cle Elum.

By then, he was carrying 285 pounds on his 5-foot-9 inch tall frame and "getting desperate. Desperate people make desperate decisions," he says. "I went to the program and got good education and positive feedback. The only thing is, you have to be willing to work at it."

Pam Dick, registered dietitian with Kittitas Valley Healthcare, offered information on nutrition, guidance on reading food labels, and tips on incorporating regular exercise into lifestyle. Participants had their weight and blood pressure monitored. Results were confidential.

Alexander embraced the program; the pounds dropped off. He was so impressed by the changes that even after moving to Wenatchee, he drove to Cle Elum to complete the classes. "I actually looked forward to them," he says. "I was losing weight and feeling better."

The payoff is noticeable. He's down nearly 40 pounds from his top weight.

"It's relieved pressure on my joints," he says. "My blood pressure is good. My cholesterol is down. My A1C results (a test to track blood sugar control) are better. I'm still taking insulin but now probably take less than half as much as I took before." He's done it by reducing food intake, eating more fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly.

"I'm a lot healthier than I used to be," says Alexander, who walks six miles a day and works out one to two hours daily at a gym. "The program is a great motivator," he says appreciatively. "But it's only as good as how hard you work at it. This hasn't come easy. It didn't come off without a struggle. I know I could easily lapse back into my old habits. It's an everyday struggle - like any addiction.

"I worked hard to lose those pounds. I don't want them back."