Just six years ago, I was a walking time bomb. Focused on the demands of running my own company while heading a single-parent household, I brushed personal needs aside. The results were predictable. Adding a pound or two a year, I loaded 60 surplus pounds on my 5-foot-2-inch frame. I was more than overweight. I was obese.
But denial is a wonderful mechanism. I saw myself as pudgy, not obese. I convinced myself that my weight didn't matter. I had lots of energy and didn't have any pressing medical problems. Plus, I was certain that I didn't eat too much. Obviously, my metabolism had changed over time, and my body structure was genetically determined. The demands on my time didn't permit regular exercise. Besides, everybody around me was at least as heavy as I was.
When I stepped on my old bathroom scale and the numbers raced to 178 pounds, the scale broke. The next morning, a new (and more accurate) scale read 183 pounds. I was forced to face the truth--I was fat! At that moment, I decided to get fit once and for all. A lifetime of failure with various popular diets loomed large. Success would require a different approach.
Shifting the Context
My first insight involved changing the context. What if I could make the project fun? Instead of grim dieting, I would seek a way that I could enjoyably eat for the rest of my life. I would find ways to exercise that were so engaging that I would pursue them for their own sake. With a torn hamstring from a recent fall, I would hire a personal trainer at my local health club. That way, I wouldn't try to do too much and set myself back. Beginning that day, I was free to create a wonderful new life.
Most profoundly, though, I decided to take this highly private matter public. Swallowing my pride (at least it had no calories), I chronicled my makeover in the local newspaper. Week by week, readers watched me shrink from a size 18 to a size 6, from 183 pounds to 122. Faced with the challenge of keeping the weight off, I continued to share the joys and setbacks of my personal experiment in fitness. Later, when I invited readers to join me in getting fit, I wondered if my story would have an impact.
The answer surprised me. Over a thousand people in our small foothill community attended the opening session of what would become the Nevada County Meltdown. We organized ourselves into teams of five and registered 128 teams. Over the next two months, participation grew to 206 teams. Hundreds more people participated informally through a community network of employers, businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, churches, schools and members of the medical community.
Over a thousand friends and neighbors lost nearly four tons in eight weeks--the equivalent of one school bus with passengers. Through our mass reduction, we disappeared the equivalent of 40 people.
We had tons of fun as we lost tons of fat. We were committed to helping each other face our private demons. Age, race, politics, economic status and profession didn't matter--the issue of obesity cut through our differences. The event created enormous civic pride--the Nevada County Meltdown restored the unity in community.
The context for the event was the same as I had used to generate my own success. We had fun--we encouraged individuals to meet their nutrition and exercise needs in appropriate and enjoyable ways and we worked together.
Steps in the Process
The Nevada County Meltdown consisted of the following seven steps (effective with one person or a thousand):
- Put down the fork in your mouth. Instead, take the fork in the road. We must decide to change and begin to make those changes today.
- Tell the truth and go public. We need to announce our decision to get fit and lose weight. By announcing our intent, we receive support and realize that we are not alone and that others are facing the same challenge.
- Find supporters and create teamwork. Teamwork takes many forms. The first kind involves our personal resources--a medical doctor, physical therapist, dietitian, personal trainer or lifestyle counselor--who can help us reach our goal. The second kind consists of fellow fitness travelers. This team can be assembled at work, at home, or through social organizations--even through Web site forums. The third kind involves the community. During the Meltdown, businesses donated prizes, fitness centers provided free use of gyms, restaurants offered special menus and grocery stores featured specials on fruits and vegetables combined with recipes. The local newspaper and other media created a Web site and featured success stories and fitness tips.
- Design your own unique program. Set goals and create structure. My goal was overall fitness with a weight loss of 60 pounds in six months. The goal of the Meltdown was improved fitness with a weight loss of a thousand pounds a week. Our structure consisted of hundreds of teams, volunteer event organizers and volunteer speakers.
- Establish a system of accountability. In the card game of life, honesty trumps denial. During my makeover, I reported my results to a personal trainer once a week. During the Meltdown, team members reported to their captain, who fed the overall results back to the community. The feedback returned almost immediately through a dedicated Web site, newspaper features, radio shows and television reports.
- Become a student again--learn, experiment and celebrate. Over the course of my makeover, I began experimenting with new foods, recipes and ways to exercise. During the Meltdown, we educated ourselves about critical issues involving nutrition and exercise and particularly about the medical implications of obesity. We tried new foods and ways of exercising and celebrated our successes.
- Share the health--recruit or regress. Become an advocate and example of fitness. I decided to use my own fitness journey for the benefit of others facing similar challenges. At the Meltdown's conclusion, we resolved to be an example for other communities and to promote healthful changes.
Today, I'm replicating our successful experiment to create weapons of mass reduction in other communities. My work is driven by a sense of urgency to address the increasing personal and financial burdens resulting from obesity--particularly the rising rate of obesity among children. The need for a community approach seems patently obvious and long overdue.
I'm also continuing my personal fitness journey by eating carefully and exercising regularly. I am well aware that I am extremely fortunate to have made lifestyle changes before my body imploded. As soon as I began to make healthier choices, my body was amazingly responsive and forgiving of past abuses. And although vanity triggered the transformation, the greatest benefit is a longer, healthier life. I'll put this "found" time to use by sharing insights that others can use to achieve their fitness goals. That's the least I can do to express appreciation for my life-extending gift.