Weight-Loss Challenges Unifying Communities around Health

Article excerpt

PROMPTED BY growing rates of obesity in their states and communities, some leaders are using a new type of campaign to engage residents in health changes: the weight-loss challenge.

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With popular TV shows such as "The Biggest Loser" spotlighting obesity and weight loss, more officials are becoming inspired to lead similar campaigns for their residents.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett wanted to see a transformation of his city after he started the OKC Million campaign in 2007, which challenged city residents to lose 1 million pounds. The challenge was in response to Cornett's personal struggle with obesity and a 2007 Men's Fitness magazine article that ranked Oklahoma City as one of the nation's most obese cities.

"When you're doing something that's really hard, it's hard to do it by yourself," Cornett told The Nation's Health. "One of the reasons we succeeded is we brought the subject of obesity out into the open. If the mayor's willing to talk about his own problems, maybe other people were open to talk about theirs."

During the Oklahoma City challenge, about 47,000 people participated by logging their weight loss into an OKC Million website once a week. The website offered weight-loss advice, nutrition tips and a map of the city's parks and trails. The campaign included events such as an "Olympic Day" in 2010, during which Oklahoma City children kayaked in the Oklahoma River in conjunction with first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. Other events included a 2008 public cooking demonstration from George Stella, a Food Network chef who specializes in cooking low-carbohydrate meals.

The city reached its 1 million pound weight-loss goal in January 2012, Cornett said.

"We got a conversation going on in our community and there was no conversation of any magnitude going on before," Cornett said. "That's been helpful in creating the conversation on nutrition and obesity."

Kansas, where 64 percent of adults are obese, became the latest state to announce a weight-loss challenge this year. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback kicked off the Governor's Weight Loss Challenge in January, after a September Kansas Summit on Obesity.

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The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is running the four-month challenge, during which Kansans are encouraged to form teams of five to shed pounds and log their weight loss into the challenge's official website. The event will end with a weigh-in ceremony on May 15, said Miranda Steele, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's director of communications. As an added incentive, the state employee team that loses the most weight wins $5,000.

Several teams of state government employees get together and walk around the state capital in Topeka, Kan., during lunch breaks, Steele said. Fitness clubs and YMCA locations in Topeka offer discounts to people who show their state IDs and confirm they are part of the contest. The website also offers weight-loss and nutrition tips from health department staff.

"There are more than 1,000 teams (of five) signed up," Steele told The Nation's Health. "County employees, local businesses have signed up. They've signed up to have teams compete against the governor's team."

Kansas and Oklahoma are far from the only municipalities to hold weight-loss challenges for residents. Similar events have been held in recent years in major cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, as well as in smaller cities such as Oak Creek, Wis.

January marked the second year of Lighten Up Henderson, a 12-week weight-loss challenge in the city of Henderson, Nev. The Parks and Recreation Department's Healthy Henderson Committee created the challenge as members brainstormed programs to get residents more active and use the city's exercise rooms and take classes, said Nick McLemore, a recreation services supervisor with Henderson's Parks and Recreation Department. …