Nobody wants to end up on the Men's Fitness list of the fattest cities in America—just ask the fine citizens of Oklahoma City who ranked as the 8th fattest city this year. That's why they've set a goal to lose a million pounds and to shed their chubby image for good. MF recently sat down with the man who's leading the city's charge against obesity, Mayor Mick Cornett. Here, he gives us his thoughts on America's weight epidemic, fat bloggers, and why it's not the size of the stadium seats that's the problem.
Oklahoma City landed on MF's fattest list again this year. How has the city reacted?
Healthcare is one of the largest issues facing Americans, and Oklahoma City is no different in that respect. Obesity has been our biggest problem. But I decided it was a problem we could do something about, so I came out with two fundamental statements to get people's attention. One, this city is going on a diet. Two, this city is going to lose a million pounds.
Your new website is getting a lot of attention from the national media. Tell us how you've used the Web to deliver your message?
I launched www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com on December 31 because that's when the media does its New Year's resolution stories about weight loss. I knew I could use this as a vehicle to carry the message about our city's new health initiative. The site documents everything—the number of people who have signed up, the amount of weight they've lost, the average weight loss, etc. The site also serves as an accountability tool because it tracks everyone's progress. You log on, update your info and you'll instantly know if you're doing better or not. No government money went into this program. I enlisted the help of someone from the private sector to build the website. There's no budget for this—it's just taking off on its own.
How did the city react when you issued a call out for citizens to lose weight?
Reaction has been about 95 percent positive. I'm learning a lot about the culture of weight loss. I didn't know there were bloggers out there who were proud to be fat. I'm not suggesting they need to change, but they did attack the initiative. We care about these people and we care about kids who are overweight. Once I set this million-pound goal-which I didn't place a time limit on—I said we have to change the culture of the community to make health a top priority. What's been the most fulfilling to me is how so many citizens are coming up to me and giving me their personal stories of how they lost 10 or 15 pounds. We're actually talking about obesity for the first time. We know we can do better—it's all about choices and personal responsibility.
You not only put your city on a diet, but you put yourself on a diet as well. Do you feel like you're in the hot seat now?
If I eat at a restaurant in Oklahoma City, people will hover over me to see what's on my plate. I knew I would have to shape up if I was going to lead this project. I'm not necessarily the greatest spokesperson because I've gained and lost weight all my life. But I do know how frustrating it can be to battle with your weight. As mayor, I was gaining five to 10 pounds per year because everyone likes to feed the mayor. I always thought obesity was something that other people had a problem with, but I looked in the mirror and started reading government statistics and I realized that I'm part of the 28 percent of our city that has a problem with weight.
What are some of the steps you've taken to lead a healthier lifestyle?
I believe it all comes down to what you eat and how much you eat. I was eating about 3,000 calories per day and I've cut that down to about 2,000 calories per day, which is plenty of food. If I know I'm going to have a big dinner at the end of the I'll make sure I have a light breakfast and lunch. I also play tennis three times per week.
It must be working; you've lost over 30 pounds in the past year. Did you notice a quality-of-life improvement after losing the weight?
Well, my tennis game has improved! It's also kind of fun going shopping for new clothes because you've lost weight. Having a slimmer physique builds up your self-esteem, too. It's nice to be on an airplane and think the seats have gotten bigger. People say the seats at sporting events are too small. My response is, "That's why we're trying to work on the size of your rear end!"
How have Oklahoma City businesses reacted to your initiative?
Employers gravitate toward it because they know how much they're spending on healthcare. Loss of productivity due to poor health is a real issue for them. Jobs and education are two things I really push for as mayor. If I'm an employer who's looking at launching a big job initiative in Oklahoma City and I see the city is on an obesity list I'm going to think twice about setting up shop there.
So would you say a certain degree of your new health initiative has to do with boosting Oklahoma City's economy?
There is certainly an aspect of this initiative that's about creating a workforce that employers and entrepreneurs are going to be attracted to—they are looking for healthy employees. The 20th century paradigm was that people would go to where the jobs were. But I think the 21st century paradigm is that you have to create a city where people will want to be and the jobs will come to you.
Aside from the direct challenge to the city's residents to lose weight, what are some of the other initiatives you've taken?
We're adding 350 miles of new sidewalks in Oklahoma City. That's something I've really pushed because we need to become a pedestrian friendly city. There's been a culture in Oklahoma City that has revolved around the automobile and you see that in the number of drive-through restaurants. We've never given people a chance to walk because the city was zoned with the automobile in mind. Now we're planning and designing neighborhoods so you don't necessarily have to own a car.
What are the schools doing to promote a healthier lifestyle?
We are building new gymnasiums in all 47 of our inner-city grade schools. Our largest district is our inner-city district and none of those schools had gymnasiums. Of course we have PE in our grade schools but without a gymnasium, how much exercise are the kids really going to get when there's inclement weather? Some of these kids have never seen a gymnasium so how do we expect them to lead a healthy lifestyle later in life?
Do you have plans to promote more bicycle use in the city?
We're slowly building a bike path system through the city. I intend to pump it up and finish it out at a much more accelerated pace. We don't have the funding in place to do that just yet, though. We're behind with actual bike lanes on our streets, too. We did such a great job of creating the interstate highway system in Oklahoma City that we don't have traffic congestion. You can actually get a speeding ticket during rush hour in the city. That's how great our traffic flows. But the downside to our zoning is that we don't have the bike lanes that commuters need to get from home to work.
You mentioned the number of drive-through restaurants in Oklahoma City. Is it true that you're working with the fast-food chains to develop more health-conscious choices?
Taco Bell saw what we were doing with the city diet and they contacted me. They're attempting to introduce a lower-calorie, tomato-based condiment that you could opt for instead of sour cream and guacamole. They asked if they could use the city's new health initiative for their regional advertising effort. With 40 Taco Bell restaurants in the Oklahoma City area and 35,000 visits per day by our citizens, that's a great opportunity for us to have a strong impact on the choices people make when it comes to their diet.
Speaking of food, the Oklahoma state meal consists of cornbread, sausage gravy, chicken fried steak, and pecan pie. That makes Taco Bell sound like a light snack.
That was something the state put together 20 years ago. It would be odd for a state to come out with a meal like that nowadays, but I guess that wasn't the case a few decades ago. To be honest, I didn't even know about the state meal until I started this initiative.
If you could change the state meal, what would it be?
Fruit salad would be my No. 1 choice. I am a connoisseur of fruit salad. Then again, I do love steak and potatoes...
You've been lobbying hard to get an NBA team in Oklahoma City. Do you believe there's a correlation between having a pro sports team in the city and having a more active community in general?
I do. We had an NBA team for the past two years due to the displaced New Orleans franchise. We've seen the kind of social impact a professional sports team has on a city. A team brings high-profile role models into your community who are healthy and they're great images for the city to gravitate toward, especially for kids. I worked so hard to get [the Hornets] in the city, and there were a number of people who didn't think it would affect them because they weren't basketball fans. But I've had mothers come up to me and say, "I didn't really care about the NBA team coming to town. But I did notice that my kids took a break from video games and started going outside to play basketball." These parents were trying everything to get their kids to go play sports and suddenly there was a cultural shift where basketball was fun and interesting and kids wanted to play.
Is it true that you are trying to get the Seattle Sonics to move to Oklahoma City?
Yes. The Sonics announced that they want to leave Seattle for Oklahoma City. They've tried to get a new arena but it hasn't worked out to this point. I recently pushed for an initiative to improve our existing sports arena. It's only six years old but it needs more revenue stream, more restaurants, and better locker rooms if we're going to get an NBA team. We held a public vote on whether we wanted to improve our current arena and build a practice facility for an NBA team. The vote passed and the NBA's Relocation Committee will be in our city later this month. That will be our chance to show why Oklahoma City is a good choice for an NBA team. There are still legal issues involving the current lease in Seattle—but the question of whether the Sonics are coming to Oklahoma City will be determined by the NBA in the next few weeks.
Check out www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com to see how Oklahoma City is shedding the pounds.