One day Oklahoma City’s mayor, Mick Cornett, noticed that his city ranked low on eating habits and high on obesity and, oh yeah, he had a problem too: at 5-foot-9 he packed nearly 220 pounds.
So he went on his own diet and standing in front of the elephant enclosure at the local zoo on New Year’s Eve, just before 2008, he issued a challenge: let’s together lose a million pounds.
The city responded with enthusiasm. Churches set up running clubs, teachers held classes to discuss diet, local companies launched weight-loss competitions, and chefs at top restaurants competed to serve the healthiest meal. Taco Bell publicized a low-fat menu. The city recruited staff from the heaviest communities and paid them to take the message to their neighbors at markets and sports events and even door-to-door, telling stories about their own weight and exercise battles. The mayor so far has opted against bans or taxes on diet-busting food.
The push didn’t come a moment too soon. In Oklahoma City, many pre-schoolers were overweight and doctors were seeing 4-year-olds with high cholesterol, and 6-year-olds with joint problems from carrying too many pounds. The diabetes rate had soared.
Almost two years later, the city had lost about half a million pounds. Cornett, who has lost 40 pounds himself, went on and held a referendum, asking citizens to back a 1 cent rise in the sales tax to fund a redesign of the state capital that would make it greener, a place where people would exercise.
Oklahoma City is a sprawl, with many freeways and fast-food outlets. Its residents are used to getting around by car, with little opportunity to walk or ride bikes. Although the unemployment rate is good, rates are lower in places like Salt Lake City and Omaha. “Through the years we built a great city — if you happen to be a car. Our sprawling land mass had resulted in an automobile-centric culture. We built wide streets, without sidewalks, that had fast-food restaurants at every intersection. From a public health standpoint, that was a recipe for disaster,” Cornett said.
So to make the city healthier and attract employers, he has set out to create school gyms, more sidewalks and bike lanes, landscaped walking trails across the city, and a world-class rowing and kayaking center. A dried-up river once avoided at night is restored, lit up, and fringed with attractive landscaping, boathouses, and bike lanes. Some 50 firms have joined a corporate rowing league, and eight local high schools lend boats to students. The city has also built “Wellness Campuses” in low-income neighborhoods where residents can visit health clinics and recreational areas.
In January 2012, the city met the million-pound loss goal. About a third of the city’s estimated obese population, 47,000 people, signed up on the official website, losing, on average, more than 20 pounds each. Many more participated privately. The city’s health statistics have improved, but the obesity rate is still on the way up, by 1 percent rather than 6. Like the campaign against smoking, which took decades of public education and regulation, the drive against obesity will take longer than we’d like, which means we need to do all we can right now.
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October 22, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA, and Janet O’Dell, RN