When a fitness magazine ranked Oklahoma City as one of America’s most obese places to live, it didn’t sit right with Mayor Mick Cornett. The 5-foot-9, nearly 220-pound mayor entered his physical stats into a calculator on a government health website and realized that he was, indeed, obese. So he got to work.
After dropping a pound a week for 40 weeks, Cornett went public with his mission during a speech on New Year’s Eve, 2007. As he stood in front of the elephants at the city zoo, he called for his citizens to lose a collective 1 million pounds. To that end, he set up a website, thiscityisgoingonadiet.com, with helpful information about healthy diet and exercise. It includes a counter that displays the number of members and the number of pounds lost.
And then an amazing thing happened: In January 2012, Cornett’s mission was accomplished. More than 50,000 members dropped a million pounds of excess baggage.
Could it work in Philly? Actually, Oklahoma City was not the first to have put its residents on a diet. Philadelphia’s “76 Tons of Fun” challenge was one of the earliest weight-loss efforts made by a big city.
After Men’s Fitness named Philadelphia the fattest city in America in January 1999, Mayor John Street announced that helping his city get healthy was one of his top goals. To that end, he hired his friend Gwen Foster to serve as the city’s first health and fitness “Czar.”
Street, Foster, and the then-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, Pat Croce, challenged Philadelphians to shed 76 tons in 76 days in 2001.
A splashy goal, that one.
But apparently unrealistic. Although 26,000 Philadelphians signed up to participate, and one woman even lost 81 pounds, the overall goal went unmet. By how much, we’re not certain: Street was mum on the exact details of the challenge results.
Still, Philadelphia hasn’t completely lost sight of its goal to improve residents’ health. For a few years, the city has made efforts — through training and initiatives furthered by the Public Health Department — to reduce the amount of salt used in commercial kitchens throughout the city, promote spending at farmer’s markets, and increase the availability of fresh produce in corner stores. These are important efforts in a city where 67.9 percent of adults and 41 percent of youth ages 6 to 17 are overweight or obese, according to the CDC. The problem is particularly acute in North Philadelphia, where 70 percent of youth, the majority of whom are black or Hispanic, are overweight or obese.
But if the city wants to attempt another city-wide weight-loss effort, we could learn a few things from Cornett and Oklahoma City:
Make it Easy on the City and Participants
During Philadelphia’s 76 Tons of Fun challenge, participants were weighed by volunteers armed with scales who went to people’s homes and offices. That’s a lot of legwork. Oklahoma City’s participants weighed themselves and recorded their results on thiscityisgoingonadiet.com. They also used the website to for information about how to eat better and be more active.
Ask for Opinions to Build Enthusiasm
From the beginning, Cornett asked his citizens for feedback on how they wanted to get healthy. Surveys found that the majority of his residents wanted to make the city more walkable. With this common goal in mind, Cornett got his constituents to approve a 1-cent tax hike, good through December 2017, to fund efforts that included widening sidewalks and improving hiking trails through a 70-acre downtown park. Compare to this to what Street did in Philadelphia by hiring someone to spearhead the efforts with a mean-sounding moniker. (Really, who wants to listen to a czar?)
Create a Real Budget or Funding Plan
Street hired Foster at an annual salary of $79,000, but the city gave no more funding to its weight-loss efforts. Foster had no support staff and relied on contributions from charitable organizations and for-profit corporations. In Oklahoma City, Cornett aimed to raise $777 million to fund his infrastructure changes with the 1-cent tax hike. The rest of the program, including thiscityisgoingonadiet.com, is supported by partner organizations including Oklahoma Heart Hospital, National Obesity Foundation and Chesapeake Energy.
Adopt a Fitness-as-a-Foundation-for-Everything-Else Attitude
Cornett really sees his city’s new fitness as laying the groundwork for an improved economy, reduced joblessness and an influx of Millennials. Oklahoma City boasted a low unemployment rate of just 4.5 percent when Cornett told Bloomberg Businessweek in August 2012 that low health-care costs and absentee rates would lure business to Oklahoma City. It’s interesting to think what healthier citizens and a healthier workforce in Philadelphia would do for the region, which had a 7.1 percent unemployment rate as of September 2014.