12/19/2014 07:30 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST

Free weight-loss program helps Moose Jaw residents lose 2,500 lb.

Lisa Abbasi can barely recognize herself these days.

Not only is she 80 pounds lighter, she also has a smile on her face and enthusiasm to go to work and take care of her kids.

In 2013, Abbasi could barely get out of bed or go a day without crying. At 300 pounds, she was morbidly obese, clinically depressed and unemployed.

At her darkest moment, Abbasi contemplated suicide.

"I wanted to drive my car in the ditch because I felt so terrible," Abbasi said.

She realized she needed to make some changes.

"I was, like, 'OK, well, you're not going to kill yourself. You've talked about these suicidal thoughts with the doctor, but you're not doing it. You've got to do something.'"

Abbasi started going to the local YMCA and felt a bit better. Then, this past January, her friend Erin Hidlebaugh asked Abbasi to be her "buddy" to enrol in a free weight-loss program that was starting in Moose Jaw, Sask.

A private rehab clinic called Alliance Wellness & Rehabilitation, along with the local YMCA, announced it would help 1,000 people lose weight and become healthier.

"The idea behind a weight-loss program is to get people when they're overweight but don't have disease yet, and try to prevent diabetes, try to prevent heart disease," said Mark Lemstra, president of Alliance Wellness & Rehabilitation.

In Moose Jaw, 63 per cent of the residents are overweight or obese.

Abbasi and Hidlebaugh became two of the first participants in the program

In their first 12 weeks, they received 100 free sessions with personal trainers, dietitians and cognitive behaviour therapists. Then, for another 12 weeks, they received followup support.

The results are in …

Hidlebaugh, 35, has lost 40 pounds and lowered her blood pressure. She said the education sessions helped her realize why she made unhealthy choices and how to stop.

"I'm a smart person. I've done a lot of research into what my children eat. I made all my son's baby food, but I was still feeding myself McDonalds. That's ridiculous," Hidlebaugh said, shaking her head. "For me, it's a lot of boredom and entitlement. I worked all day and I'm just going to eat this."

The clinic can help 80 people at a time. So far, 229 participants have entered the program; of those, 31 quit for non-medical reasons. Lemstra said most of the people who quit the program did not sign up with a buddy or recruit a three-person support team as recommended. Those are now mandatory requirements.

Results from the initial, intensive 12-week program include:

- 183 completed the program.

- Average weight lost was 14 pounds.

- Average body fat lost was four per cent.

- Average waist reduction of three inches. 

- Aerobic fitness test improvement of 28 per cent.

Moose Jaw mayor 'walks the talk'

At a news conference to launch the program in January, Moose Jaw Mayor Deb Higgins said she would participate to set an example.

She told reporters: "You need to walk the talk, right?"

CBC News caught up with the mayor as she walked, talked, and sweated it out on the YMCA treadmill at 7 a.m.

Higgins enrolled in the program in September and lost nine pounds and four per cent body fat in 12 weeks. The mayor said she's sleeping better than she has in years.

"It is a private initiative, but we are whole-heartedly behind it, because I think it can be a great benefit to the city of Moose Jaw," Higgins said.

500 people on waiting list

Five hundred people remain on the waiting list. Lemstra hopes to increase his clinic's capacity to help more people in the new year.

So, why is a private clinic owner giving away 100,000 free sessions to help Moose Jaw residents lose weight?

Lemstra is a behavioural medicine professor at the University of Saskatchewan. He takes inspiration from the true pioneers of medicare, such as Matt Anderson, a dirt farmer and local councillor who first introduced medicare in his small town of Strasbourg, long before Tommy Douglas or other politicians recognized it was a good use of tax dollars.

Lemstra believes that if he, like Anderson, can show the provincial and federal governments that this weight loss initiative is an effective public health program, they may be convinced to invest more tax dollars into obesity prevention.

It's too soon, he said, to calculate the program's long-term success.

A healthier way to live

Abbasi hopes her story will inspire those who feel hopeless, just as she did just 15 months ago. She's found a new job and stopped taking antidepressants. 

As she picks her eight-year old daughter up from the school bus, she reveals her real motivation is to become a more active mother and role model for her three children. 

"I want them to see that there's a healthier way to live, and a better life than being depressed and making bad choices."