SWAN’S ISLAND — Lobster fisherman Chris Sawyer and his wife Emmie had their fourth child recently.

The next day, Sawyer, 38, contacted Swan’s Island health provider Donna Wiegle. He wanted to join the type 2 diabetes prevention program to improve his health.

“I said, ‘If I don’t do something, I’m not going to be around when my baby graduates from high school,” Sawyer recalled recently.

Sawyer entered the 16-week program at 282 pounds. He moved slowly, had back problems, couldn’t catch his breath and wasn’t sleeping well.

All that is much better now. He’s 244 pounds, walks at least 1.5 miles every day, is reserving part of his new shop for an exercise room, has junked the junk snacks around the house and is learning recipes for healthy meals and snacks.

“My parents both have diabetes,” he said. “I’ve got four young kids, and I wanted to stick around.”

Diabetes prevention is becoming a way of life on Swan’s Island, thanks to a grant to Mount Desert Island Hospital from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency dedicated to improving access to health care for uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable people. The hospital last year launched the program on Swan’s Island.

In 2013, 12 people collectively lost 160 pounds. The 2014 class began in January; eight of 10 participants completed the class, losing a combined 186 pounds.  

Wiegle and Swan’s Island’s Mill Pond Health Center volunteer Joan Harding trained to become lifestyle coaches to lead the program. Island Institute Fellow Anna Smith helped. In 2013, MDI Hospital’s Elise O’Neil, R.N., commuted weekly to lead the class.

The model comes from the Centers for Disease Control-led National Diabetes Prevention Program. The program shows folks with pre-diabetes how to make modest behavior changes to lose 5 percent to 7 percent of their body weight—for example, 10-14 pounds for a 200-pound person—thus reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 percent.

One-hour sessions cover topics such as reading nutrition labels, counting calories and fat grams, tracking food intake, adding 150 minutes of weekly aerobic activity, and dealing with stress. Folks are eligible if they exhibit risk factors for developing diabetes, such as high fasting blood sugar, being overweight or sedentary, family history or prior gestational diabetes.

“We’ve had tremendous success,” Wiegle said. In this small community, the exercising, weight-losing folks have become an advertisement.

“It’s like monkey-see, monkey-do,” she said. “When people see someone out walking, they say, ‘I’m going to make the effort.'”

This year, participants included fishermen, a contractor and retirees. They received materials such as low-fat, low-calorie foods to try, Cooking Light magazines, healthy low-fat recipes, food scales and pedometers. Hospital nutritionist Amory Davis discussed fats and hidden sugars in food.

The success attracted the attention of the national CDC when Wiegle showed a video, at a Maine CDC meeting in Augusta, of participants discussing their transformations.

The island fishing community faces challenges when it comes to healthy lifestyle. Fishermen have great upper body strength, but the work lacks aerobics. Fresh produce can be hard to keep in stock. Swan’s Island doesn’t have a gym or indoor pool. Its health center and telemedicine were established in recent years, and exercise classes started only two years ago—in an unheated hall, projecting a Zumba DVD on a paper screen.

More exercise and healthy lifestyle programs are offered today, most free.

Wiegle and her husband Charlie have also taken the class.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” she said. “My husband said one of the things that struck him is people starting to say, ‘Oh, you look wonderful! What’s your secret?’ It came to him that there is no secret. It’s really about portion control, making healthy choices, making exercise part of your daily routine. If you do those things, there’s no way you’re not going to lose weight.”

View the 2013 session testimonials at http://vimeo.com/69193213.