It’s almost 2009 and millions of Americans are once again making resolutions to lose weight, get in shape and improve their overall health and wellness in the new year.

Unfortunately, 50 percent of the people that start an exercise program drop out within six months to a year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A combination of too little physical activity and too many calories has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of obese and overweight Americans, including children, putting them at risk for hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and even some cancers.

The Merrimack Valley YMCA has a prescription for achieving a healthier lifestyle while strengthening family and other relationships.

“Many of us want to achieve better health but end up discouraged,” said Elizabeth A. Covino, YMCA director of marketing/public relations. “An increasing population of ‘health seekers’ that want to be active and healthy continually start and stop the process, unable to sustain their commitment to health and wellness. It’s our experience that those who stay encouraged and are ultimately successful often enlist a family member or friend and join welcoming programs and activities that foster relationships and prove a constant encouragement to not only physical health but to strength of spirit, mind and family. Relationships make the YMCA health and fitness difference,” Covino said.

As a member of the nation’s oldest and largest community-based organization and one of its largest fitness program providers, the Merrimack Valley YMCA wants to help health seekers embrace their New Year’s resolutions in 2009 by offering some questions to ask when choosing a health and fitness program:

* Is the facility located within 10-12 minutes of your home or office?

* Does the facility provide opportunities for the entire family to exercise together or offer child care and after-school or teen programs? Such services can be invaluable to parents in achieving their goals.

* Does the facility offers a sense of belonging and a comfortable, non-judgmental environment that caters to individual exercise capabilities?

* Will staff and fellow members encourage opportunities to interact and meet new friends or become involved in community events?

* Does staff provide expertise and support, not only in designing an exercise routine, but also in making an overall lifestyle change through classes that address issues such as improving time management, learning to cope with stress or developing healthier eating habits?

* Will staff members welcome you by your first name, and will they notice if you stop working out?

* Does the facility offer access to alternative locations for members that travel? Are these locations in the places you frequent?

Four years ago, YMCA of the USA announced YMCA Activate America, a 10-year initiative to unite the public and private sectors in strengthening the health of America’s children, families and communities with locally based strategies for healthy living, partnerships with corporate and public leaders, increased YMCA capacity to serve communities, and strengthened programs to educate and engage the public in healthy lifestyles as permanent enjoyable routines.

“Good health is more than a treadmill, stair-climber or ab-roller. It’s a lifestyle that incorporates good health in spirit, mind and body,” Covino said. “And the key to success is confidence and relationships that can turn resolutions into reality. Your YMCA is here to help.”

Established in 1880, the Merrimack Valley YMCA has three facilities: Andover/North Andover YMCA, 165 Haverhill Street, Andover; Lawrence YMCA, 40 Lawrence Street, Lawrence; and Methuen YMCA, 129 Haverhill Street, Methuen.

The YMCA also operates two residential camps — Camp Nokomis for Girls and Camp Lawrence for Boys, as well as Day Camp Otter in Salem, N. H.

For more information, check the website or stop by for a tour.