Four months shy of her 60th birthday, Carole Carson stepped on her bathroom scale, and it broke. Literally.
"That's it!" declared the 5-foot-1 Carson, taking the busted scale as a sign from God. "If you don't change, you'll die fat," she told herself, then 182 pounds and wearing size 18 clothing.
Carson remembers that exasperating moment in 2001 as the turning point that inspired her to shed 62 pounds with the support and guidance of family, friends and health care professionals. "For the first time, I admitted I needed help," recalls Carson, of Nevada City, Calif. (pop. 3,001).
Two years later, taking everything she learned from the experience, she helped to develop the Nevada County Meltdown, inspiring more than 1,000 people in her county to drop almost 4 tons of flab in eight weeks and pioneering community-wide weight loss by organizing teams of residents in a friendly competition to shed the most pounds.
"The concept of losing weight together has really taken root across America," says Carson, now 69, whose book From Fat to Fit was released in 2007. "It's just too hard to do it alone."
Tipping the scales
For Carson, who had battled fat for most of her life, the key to success was not to go it alone. She enlisted a personal trainer, met periodically with a registered nurse to monitor her progress, and began chronicling her fitness journey in a weekly column in The Union, the local newspaper. Before long, Carson scarcely could run an errand without someone stopping her on the street to share his or her own personal struggles to lose weight.
That daily interaction with townsfolk got her thinking about a group effort to become a healthier community based on some of the principles she learned while getting healthy herself.
In 2003, she and Mike Carville, the owner of Nevada City's South Yuba Fitness Club, developed a plan and, in 2004, launched the Nevada County Meltdown as part of a grassroots quest to become "the fittest little county in the nation." More than 200 teams signed up under names such as Great Expectations, Half Ton of Fun, and Lettuce Begin. Participants were invited to use area fitness centers for free during the contest, teams were encouraged to pursue healthful eating and exercise regimens, and prizes were donated to reward individual and team achievements.
"If you've tried to lose weight on your own, you know how hard it is, how grim and how lonely," Carson says, "and yet we were making it fun."
Turnout at weekly meetings was so enthusiastic that the gatherings were moved from a high school gymnasium to the county fairgrounds to accommodate the crowds. Health presentations offered information and inspiration for people to stay on the move, and were supplemented by free blood pressure checks, on-site Jazzercise classes and mini-massages. Out in the community, restaurants developed low-calorie menus, grocery stores promoted fruits and vegetables, group walks were organized, and even then-Nevada City Mayor Kerry Arnett signed up to participate.
Turns out that shedding flab together was more effective, less isolating and much more fun than doing it alone.
"We're social animals," says Carson, a semi-retired businesswoman who now consults with other towns about community-wide health programs. "We have a profound impact on each other—for good or ill."
Ann Mitchell, 65, who lost 40 pounds during the Meltdown, agrees. "The most important thing about it was it was such a fabulous community thing," says Mitchell, of Nevada City. "You really felt part of the community."
Fitness and friendship
Other communities in America have taken notice. Forming perhaps the ultimate weight-loss support groups, towns are promoting fitness among residents as schools and employers encourage regular group exercise; restaurants offer healthier food options; and local governments construct sidewalks and biking trails.
In Fossil, Ore. (pop. 469), Anne Odom, 25, and Keri Bianco, 36, knew they'd have greater weight-loss success if they held each other accountable while working together in 2009 at the Asher Community Health Center.
"We wanted to do an intra-office competition," recalls Odom, the clinic's receptionist, "but everyone around Fossil heard about it and wanted to join, so we made it public."
The result was a Biggest Loser contest that involved 20 percent of the town's population. Together, residents dropped a collective 1,000 pounds in 12 weeks.
"At first we were thinking, 'We'll get 20 people, maybe,'" recalls Bianco. When more than 60 people showed up at the first meeting—and 80 were attending regularly by the end of the three-month program—she began to understand the power of combining fitness with friendship. "It's a constant morale booster," she explains.
In a remote community where the closest fitness center required a two-hour drive, residents turned the Fossil Elementary School gymnasium into a community exercise room. For dumbbells, they used empty water bottles filled with sand, and they bought elastic stretching bands online to perform resistance-training exercises. Aerobics classes were led by Debbie Boettner, 54, a physician assistant at the health center.
The response was so great that two subsequent weight-loss contests helped 130 townspeople drop 750 pounds. Some participants' health improved so dramatically, says Boettner, that they avoided orthopedic surgery or were able to discontinue their insulin shots for diabetes.
Now the town's former American Legion Hall has been transformed into a community hub that includes a fitness center offering exercise classes seven days a week. "You walk down the street, and people are walking everywhere and riding their bikes to work," Boettner says.
Living better, living longer
In the southern Minnesota town of Albert Lea (pop. 17,389), the goal wasn't simply losing weight; it was living better—and longer.
Backed by town officials, the yearlong AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project was a first-of-its-kind experiment sponsored by United Health Foundation to encourage residents to explore practices from cultures where people live the longest. Those included not only exercising regularly and eating healthfully, but also setting aside time to relax, having a purpose in life, and belonging to a church, synagogue or other faith community.
"When all of the community begins to build these habits," says Bob Graham, 69, the town's community development director, "you start becoming this bubble of vitality."
As part of the project, local restaurants offered half-size portions on their menus, and neighborhood groups of parents walked their children to school instead of putting them on the bus. The city completed a 5-mile walkway around a lake in the town center, and dozens of community gardens were planted to grow fresh produce and nurture new friendships. Lou-Rich, a metal parts manufacturing company with 250 workers, developed a quarter-mile indoor walking trail to encourage employees to exercise during breaks.
"This was more of all-around healthy living, not going out and running a marathon," says Albert Lea resident Janice Hammer, 62.
The lifestyle changes have added an average of three years to the lives of participants, according to one vitality measurement tool. And in some cases, the difference was transformational, says Graham, citing one middle-age man who was overweight, diabetic and depressed before joining a neighborhood walking team. Not only did the man lose weight; he was able to stop taking his diabetic medicine.
"It wasn't just the walking," Graham says. "It was the caring."