Rajiv Kumar: Inspired by stories of healthier lives Credit: Patrick O’Connor

He’s shaping up Rhode Island – and the world

Brown medical student Rajiv Kumar started small with Shape Up RI. Now the organization is growing in-state, thanks to a new grant, and around the world.
By Mark Hollmer  |  July 7, 2009  |  Email to a friend

During the first year of Shape Up RI, a middle-aged man walked up to Rajiv Kumar to thank him for creating the weight-loss competition program.

Before joining, the man had suffered from severe osteoarthritis in his knees due to excess weight. That, combined with diabetes, left him in a wheelchair much of the time. But the man lost 10 pounds after starting to walk with his family a little bit each day. As a result, his knee pain lessened and he could move around more easily again.

“Sometimes when you work in the community you wonder what the actual impact is,” says Kumar, a third-year student at Brown’s Alpert Medical School. “So when you hear a story like that, it is very inspiring.”

Since Kumar launched the effort in 2005, more than 25,000 people have participated in the nonprofit Rhode Island Internet-based weight loss and exercise competition. Now Kumar is expanding the effort on several fronts.

The program continues to grow nationally through a for-profit counterpart known as Shape Up the Nation. In addition, Kumar has brought the concept to 26 different countries.

Efforts to grow Shape Up RI continue in earnest. The program recently won a $250,000, three-year grant from the Rhode Island Foundation that will help it expand through education and outreach.

As part of the latest initiative, the organization has partnered with the Rhode Island State Nurses Association and the Rhode Island Primary Care Physicians Corporation to enroll another 4,000 people in the program. Once implemented, the expansion funded by the grant will enable primary care doctors to refer their patients to Shape Up, assisted by a wellness kit that includes a new brochure and other information.

This fall, Shape Up is also planning to launch a new program to target child obesity by promoting physical activity among fifth-graders.

Kumar sees Shape Up RI as reflecting Brown’s commitment to the state. “It fits in really well with Brown’s mission of becoming part of the community by taking resources at Brown and leveraging them to make (positive) change,” Kumar says.

Brown was an early supporter of the program, Kumar says, donating seed funding for Shape Up’s first two years. Shape Up is now somewhat self-sustaining, he said, thanks in part to its $20 per person annual registration fee. Many employers cover enrollment in the program as part of standard employee benefits.

There is certainly a need. On the one hand, Rhode Island is among the best 10 states in terms of the lowest prevalence of obesity, having recently ranked as the fourth least-heaviest state, Kumar said. But the numbers are misleading, because 61 percent of Rhode Island’s population ranks as either overweight or obese. (That’s compared nationally to an overweight or obese population of about 67 percent.) Rhode Island also has higher-than-average rates of diabetes and heart disease, Kumar says.

Evaluation of some early Shape Up results show the program is working. A study of Shape Up RI 2007 was published in the journal Obesity in May. The paper, a joint effort by Brown and the Miriam Hospital, highlighted data that showed the competition appeared to produce weight loss in larger numbers at minimal cost.

Kumar was a study co-author. Rena Wing, the study’s lead author, is professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School. She also directs the Weight Control and Diabetes Center at the Miriam Hospital.