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State's first lady plugs health Brings crusade for youth fitness to Buffalo while becoming accustomed to new role

Seven months to the day that her husband was sworn in as the state's 55th governor, Michelle Paige Paterson brought her crusade for youth fitness to Buffalo.

She also talked Friday about her push for a healthier environment, outlining a project she calls the "greening of the governor's mansion."

While the first lady seems comfortable in the glare of the public spotlight, she told The Buffalo News that becoming accustomed to her new high-profile role took six months.

"I'm a pretty private person and was used to leading a private life," she said Friday. "This has been a real adjustment."

Friends and relatives have described the 47-year-old health industry executive as a relatively shy woman, but one with a strong sense of faith and a passion for certain causes.

Nowhere is that passion more evident than in her campaign to combat childhood obesity.

In her second visit to Buffalo since her husband, David A. Paterson, became governor, the state's first lady said she learned the value of exercising as a young child. She has been an avid jogger ever since she started running in middle school. Exercise, she said, can help prevent disease, ease depression and even help youngsters conquer feelings of inadequacy.

"If we can grab kids at the [middle school] age, I think we can really affect their lives," she said.

That's the basis of her effort, known as Healthy Steps to Albany.

A pilot program sprouted in Harlem from seeds planted while her husband was lieutenant governor. It involved challenging youngsters to improve their physical fitness by providing praise, prizes and other incentives to those who met their goals. Some participants were to be treated to a lunch with then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.

Little did she know that Spitzer would leave office in disgrace during a prostitution scandal.

"It turned out that we ended up hosting [the lunch]," she said.

The program is expanding statewide, with targeted schools in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Rochester set to participate. Student volunteers compete to see who can take the most steps to promote fitness. Ten students attending five Buffalo Public Schools will participate.

Paterson outlined the program at a luncheon Friday hosted by Sheehan Health Network and several other local sponsors. Earlier, she visited Waterfront Elementary School to review the school's efforts to improve nutrition.

Promoting green technology, another of her goals, includes efforts
started under Spitzer to make the governor's mansion more energy efficient, she said. The complex now has solar panels, appliances that conserve energy and other green features.

How has her husband adjusted to his new duties at a time when the state -- like the rest of the nation -- faces economic turmoil?

While she said he's a "natural" in navigating governmental waters, she added that his workload has been daunting.

"Trying to juggle everything has been a little hard for him," she said.

She, meanwhile, said she was beginning to feel more comfortable in her expanded role as a public voice for the Paterson administration.

Her challenges in the public spotlight began less than a day after she became first lady.

Her husband called a news conference to talk about the couple's affairs during a rocky period in their marriage. The governor said he made the disclosures to stop rumors.

The first lady, a graduate of Syracuse University and Milano Graduate School in New York City, promised to return to Buffalo in January to kick off her youth fitness program.

As childhood obesity rates rise, so does the possibility that many youngsters might not outlive their parents, she said.


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