A mayor challenged residents to lose one million pounds. Here's how they did it.

City has been called 'a laboratory for healthy living'

Oklahoma City's mayor spearheaded an anti-obesity effort that could fundamentally shift the city's culture—and its residents' waistlines, Ian Birrell reports for The Atlantic.

Recognizing the problem

Mayor Mick Cornett (R) began his efforts in 2007, after he saw that his city's residents were ranked among the nation's most obese populations, along with having the worst eating habits, too. And at about the same time, Cornett came to realize that he was obese himself.

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Before the mayor's efforts, Oklahoma City did not have any bike lanes, and reportedly had the highest density of fast-food restaurants in the United States. His city also faced more structural challenges: it was developed around the car, and is among the most spread-out cities in the nation, covering 620 square miles.

Million-pound challenge

But things began to change for Oklahoma City in 2007 on New Year's Eve—a day selected with New Year's resolutions in mind—when Cornett, a former television sportscaster, announced his goal for the city to lose one million pounds.

The campaign attracted media attention and sparked conversations and various initiatives from local citizens—and in a city where physicians saw diabetes rates skyrocketing and four-year-olds with high cholesterol, changes couldn't come soon enough.

As part of Oklahoma City's efforts:

  • Local companies held weight-loss contests;
  • More restaurants began offering healthy meals—including a local Taco Bell that touted its low-fat menu;
  • Schools began talking more about diet;
  • Houses of worship began having running clubs; and
  • The soda industry sponsored programs to combat obesity.

And in January 2012, Oklahoma City hit the goal—about 47,000 individuals had signed up for the challenge, and each lost more than 20 pounds on average.

What came next

But the city did not stop there, with Cornett embarking on a mission to fundamentally redesign the area to promote a culture of health.

The city has spent $3 billion in public funds on various initiatives, with the private sector chipping in up to $15 billion, Cornett estimates. Residents even approved a one-cent increase in the local sales tax, resulting in roughly $100 million more revenue annually, while other funds have come from property tax revenue and tobacco settlements.

Oklahoma City has worked to install walking trails, bike lanes, sidewalks, and sports facilities across the city. It is putting a gym in every school, and the city's downtown is getting a 70-acre central park.

Focus on areas most in need

The city has also turned to data to tackle obesity, zeroing in on the least healthy zip codes—some of which had death rates for heart conditions and strokes that were five times higher than wealthier areas.

The Oklahoma City-County Health Department has an eight-member outreach team that goes to markets, events, and even goes door-to-door to promote healthy initiatives. Plus, the city has built "Wellness Campuses" in the most at-need areas—public-private partnerships with medical clinics, kitchens for cooking demonstrations, and more.

"Obesity is the underlying cause of almost every chronic condition we have in Oklahoma," says Alicia Meadows, the department's director of planning and development. "If you direct significant resources into areas of greatest health inequalities, we think you make the biggest difference."

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Has it made a dent?

For all its progress, has Oklahoma City helped to significantly curb its obesity problem?

There are some data officials can point to:

  • Key indicators of poor outcomes are down between 2% and 10% over the past five years in the city's lowest-income areas;
  • The city mortality rate has decreased by 3%; and
  • The obesity rate used to increase by 6% per year—but that has slowed to a 1% increase per year.

Meanwhile, Cornett is not claiming to have turned the tide. "All I will say is that my impression is we are going in the right direction" (Birrell, The Atlantic, 10/14).

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