Pounding Obesity One Town at a Time
By the time Diana Whittington turned 42, her blood pressure was getting out of hand. Given her weight of 337 pounds and a family history of diabetes and heart disease, she worried about her health risks.
Yet she knew she'd fail with a typical weight-loss plan. "I didn't want to do a weeds and water diet for two years and then regain the weight," says the resident of Ocean City, Md.
But thanks to a community initiative called Healthy U of Delmarva, Ms. Whittington lost 89 pounds in less than two years. She's working to drop a total of 137 pounds.
Shedding pounds used to be something people did at home or through private weight-loss programs. Employers and towns didn't get involved. But that's changing.
With two out of three Americans overweight or obese, it's become a community problem. The solution requires cooperation from public and private institutions. "It's not just a few individuals, but your friends and neighbors who may be overweight," says Bonnie T. Jortberg, R.D., of the University of Colorado at Denver.
By working together, people can persuade employers to offer fitness opportunities, make neighborhoods safe for physical activity and bring the health message to schools, says Ms. Jortberg, co-author of The Step Diet Book.
In the Ocean City area on Maryland's Eastern Shore, almost 24 percent of the residents are obese (compared with 32 percent nationwide). A broad-ranging program that started in 2002 gave residents a consistent message about diet and exercise in businesses, homes, schools, public buildings and local media.
Ms. Whittington's boss at Data Services told workers about Healthy U. "Our jobs are sedentary, and when we were given 30 minutes a day for exercise it was a big help. Having everyone around you do the same thing is incredible," Ms. Whittington says.
She and colleagues formed a walking club that does a two-mile circuit each morning before work. And thanks to personal donations of old and new equipment, her workplace has an exercise room.
In Chicago, JP Morgan Chase offered workers a pedometer for filling out a health survey. Half of them did. "We gave away 5,000 pedometers. People like using them. It's a low-tech way to encourage people to move more," says Wayne Burton, M.D., an employee wellness and productivity executive for the firm.
In Baton Rouge, businessman Stephen Toups was so pleased with his own weight loss that he launched a drive to encourage his whole city to get fit. The "Million Pound Challenge" encouraged residents to walk until they'd lost a collective 500 tons.
Not every place has an ideal environment for walking or other exercise. Some people have to create a healthy space. New Orleans, for instance, will set up biking and walking routes under a federally funded program.