Seven years ago, Mick Cornett appeared to have lost his mind. Midway through his second term in office, the mayor of Oklahoma City called a New Year's Eve press conference at, of all places, the city zoo. Standing in front of the elephant enclosure to drive his point home, with TV cameras rolling and journalists looking on, he told the good citizens of his city that they were fat. Not only that, but they needed to fix it. "This city is going on a diet," he declared, "and we're going to lose a million pounds."
The mayor’s audacious “pep talk” was a rare moment of political honesty, not to mention the kind of overreach that routinely kills political careers. But Cornett saw obesity as a health epidemic of crisis proportions and an image problem that was weighing his city down—and he knew it wasn’t going away on its own. “Nobody wants to hear that they need to go on a diet,” he says today, “but I felt that the conversation was important and we needed a program to address obesity.” In 2007, 29.5% of the population engaged in zero physical activity, 25% smoked, and 25.4% were obese.
Of course, this problem isn’t unique to Sooners. In fact, as we at Men’s Fitness discovered when we fanned out and reported our exhaustive annual roundup of the fittest and the fattest cities across America (for which we employ a 15-point proprietary formula that includes air quality, pedestrian- and bike-friendliness, and general well-being), on the whole, Americans are overweight by an average of 23 pounds. Even in poster cities for good health—San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle— with their active citizens, outsize number of gyms, favorable climates, and overflowing abundance of socially conscious hipsters, more than half of all people are overweight.
Now this is all sobering news. And we don’t mean to get all preachy about it, but it’s not a good thing. So in this year’s civic rundown, we decided to break form with the past. Rather than take this opportunity to extol the virtues of our fittest cities—say, touting No. 11 Miami for nurturing a CrossFit craze or lavishing praise on the incredibly clean air breathed in No. 21 Tucson—we decided to look for inspiration in the unlikeliest of places: Oklahoma City.
Today, one can look at Cornett’s full-frontal assault on poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle as a ballsy move—but it’s been nothing short of effective. Fifty-one thousand citizens collectively shed a million pounds, and Cornett’s “OKC Million” campaign sparked a new public dialogue around health and fitness that led to the people of Oklahoma City taxing themselves to fund exciting projects—including a whitewater course, a new downtown park, and a modern streetcar system—that today are transforming downtown OKC into a vibrant, walkable, more fitness- oriented, and, ultimately, more livable city. It may not have cracked our top 25 fittest yet, but—make no mistake about it—Oklahoma City’s unfolding success story can teach us all a thing or two about fitness.
So—how exactly did these brave Oklahomans turn their city around? I spent a full week scoping out the city’s burgeoning fitness scene, and here’s what I discovered.