As a longtime distance runner, Newman Elementary Principal John Erlacher figured he exercised enough to eat whatever he wanted.
That was until Erlacher, now 60, developed Type II diabetes.
"I used to sit around the TV at night with a big bowl of popcorn or bowl of ice cream," Erlacher said, "but it really catches up on you."
Now, Erlacher along with 13 other Salt Lake Valley principals is trying to do something about it. The principals are part of this year's My Heart Challenge contest sponsored by the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute. As part of the 100-day challenge, which began Feb. 7, the principals are tracking what they eat, exercising more and meeting regularly with a dietician and exercise physiologist.
The competition is only about half over, but already the group has lost a combined 173 pounds, said Meagan Kline, an organizer and exercise physiologist at Intermountain Medical Center. That's nearly as much weight as last year's competitors, 12 area city officials, lost over the entire 100 days.
Kline said the idea behind the contest is to spread awareness about heart health by helping influential groups of people improve their own well-being.
"[Principals] can help the children in their schools, they can help the families," Kline said. "That's a lot of influence they can have right there."
East Midvale Elementary Principal Sally Sansom has shed 12 pounds so far by eating healthier and exercising more, and she's involved her whole school. The school held a walk-a-thon for Dr. Seuss Week and a family fitness night, and Sansom offers tips about eating well and staying active via Eddie's Excellent News (the school's new show named after its mascot).
For example, she's encouraged her students to jump rope or do jumping jacks while watching TV at home. One mom told Sansom that her kids now insist on jumping rope in front of the television.
"They say, 'Mrs. Sansom told me to,'" the mother told the principal.
Erlacher's students are also part of his transformation. Erlacher, in addition to taking spin and weight training classes, walks with students around the perimeter of the school's soccer field for about 45 minutes each day.
"It's fun and afterward it makes us feel good because we got some energy out," said sixth-grader Anna Wilson as she followed Erlacher around the field on a recent school day.
Students occasionally stop to ask him how many steps he's logged on his pedometer on any given day (7,432 as of noon on a recent school day).
"I think he's the best principal I ever had," said sixth-grader Juanita Drake. "I think he's a great example."
Two students even created a poster that hangs near the school's front entrance, detailing Erlacher's efforts (243,296 steps in 36 days, equaling 14,384 more steps than the average person).
"I think it was pretty cool how he went in a program and got more fit," said sixth-grader Marcus Ikegami, one of the students who created the poster as part of a math project. "If he stays that way it will be really good for him and everyone else."
Erlacher is planning on it. Like last year, the competition will have two winners: one who most improves his or her health and one who earns the most points for eating well, exercising and attending meetings. In February, organizers measured the principals' body fat percentages, cholesterol levels and had them take treadmill stress tests, among other things. They'll do those tests again at the end to see how far they've come and who won.
Last year's winners, Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen and Midvale City Attorney Craig Hall have managed to keep up their health, Kline said.
This year, the winners will receive $1,000 donations for their schools.
Erlacher has promised students that if he wins, he'll use the cash to enhance field day at the end of the year. He's already been able to cut down on the dosage of his diabetes medication, thanks to the lifestyle changes.
"I'm out to win," Erlacher said.
Twitter: @lschencker My Heart Challenge participants
The Salt Lake Valley principals taking part in the challenge:
• Christy Waddell, Butler Elementary, Cottonwood Heights
• Brent Shaw, Canyon View Elementary, Cottonwood Heights
• Nikki Ward, St. John the Baptist Elementary, Draper
• Becky Gerber, Herriman Elementary, Herriman
• Karen Chatterton, Cottonwood Elementary, Holladay
• Mark Longe, St. Vincent de Paul School, Holladay
• Sally Sansom, East Midvale Elementary, Midvale
• Heather Nicholas, Horizon Elementary, Murray
• Tracy Rose, Twin Peaks Elementary, Murray
• Linda Richins, Clayton Middle School, Salt Lake City
• John Erlacher, Newman Elementary, Salt Lake City
• Ruth Peters, Peruvian Park Elementary, Sandy
• Cecilia Jabakumar, Arcadia Elementary, Taylorsville
• Diena Riddle, Hayden Peak Elementary, West Jordan