Sports fans in Cleveland, Ohio, were dealt a blow over the summer when basketball star and icon LeBron James decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Much was made of the move and its impact on a city that has been starved for a championship of any kind. But a few weeks ago Cleveland gained a superstar who could have a far greater impact on the city and the people who live there.
His name is Dr. James Levine, and you won't find him in the sports pages.
Levine, formerly an endocrinologist and obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic and author of the book "Move a Little, Lose a Lot," has moved to Cleveland to begin what is unofficially known as the Cleveland Project.
It's an ambitious public health project based on the premise that if you improve the health of people in a community, you will improve the community's overall welfare. Levine is betting that if he can help people live healthier lives by exercising and eating better, they will in turn lead more productive lives, be better off financially and improve their neighborhoods. Healthier communities, he believes, are more economically viable.
It's a big bet, and Levine knows it. "I may not succeed," he says, "but I'm going to try."
How's he going to do it? His clinic, based in inner city Cleveland, will begin by creating designated "activity streets" where community health representatives will engage residents in exercise programs tailored for individuals. That idea is based on Levine's belief that adding physical activity back into people's lives, even in small increments, can improve their health.
There will also be "eat streets," where residents can grow their own produce, learn how to eat better and find healthy, local food. Levine says he's already heard from local farmers who want to be part of the project.
Once residents are enrolled in these programs, doctors at the clinic will be able to monitor them and design plans to improve their health.
Levine and his partner, John Montague, believe this project can work because they've seen it succeed in smaller settings. The company they created in Minnesota, Muve Inc., has been tailoring activity-based weight-loss programs for people in offices and seeing good results. They also believe health care reform will work to the program's advantage, in part because it will reward innovations in the delivery of health care.
If there's anyone who can pull this off, it's Levine. He is a force of nature, a man who seems indefatigable in his desire to improve people's lives. In addition to his work as a doctor and his efforts to promote weight loss, he has also helped promote the global fight against child prostitution, an issue he wrote about in his novel "The Blue Notebook."
So cheer up, Cleveland. LeBron may be gone, but there's a new star to take his place, and more.
Chris Dall is a producer on MPR's Midmorning Program.