"Fittest Little County" challenges others to get fit

Cities, counties and states all over the country have tried community weight-loss and get-fit events -- with mixed results.
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Cities, counties and states all over the country have tried community weight-loss and get-fit events -- with mixed results.

But a teeny county in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California just finished an eight-week community fitness and weight-loss event that attracted more than 1,060 people who lost a total of more than 7,500 pounds in what was dubbed the "Nevada County Meltdown."

The participants -- residents of the county's towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City -- met weekly in a huge fairgrounds hall for pep talks, morale-building and educational sessions on fitness and nutrition; restaurants started so-called "Meltdown" low-fat menus; and every health club in town opened its doors to Meltdown participants for free workouts during the two-month program.

Want a role model? The mayor of Nevada City, weighing in at a rather roly-poly 309 pounds at the start of the program enthusiastically joined up and after eight weeks is down to 291, with a long-term goal of hitting 190 by his 50th birthday in September.

"I've always tried to lead by example," Mayor Kerry Arnett told SNEWS®, which happens to be headquartered in the town of Grass Valley and had a bird's-eye view of the event. "If I can help motivate, that's the least I can do.

"No matter what anybody says, if you eat less, exercise more, and drink a lot of water, you WILL lose weight," said Arnett, who has been walking nearly daily for at least 30 minutes on his Proform treadmill.

For him and for the woman who spearheaded the program, Carole Carson, the event quickly grew beyond what they had imagined. Carson suggested the challenge in a newspaper column she writes in the local paper, and she and local health clubs planned a kick-off meeting in a racquet ball court at an area club.

"We envisioned this as a program for about 100 people," Carson said at the event's final official meeting on Feb. 24, "so it got a little out of control."

When her phone rang off the hook with residents seeking information, the meeting was moved to the local high school's theater -- where more than 700 people filled the seats and more than 300 had to be turned away. A second organizational meeting was planned a few days later and all other meetings were quickly moved to the fairgrounds exhibit hall.

The whole county became involved. Arnett said the team spirit and enthusiasm helped with motivation since everywhere anybody turned you found someone wearing an official Meltdown T-shirt or button. He said people came into his store and asked him how he was doing. Carson said people would stop her in the grocery store and ask for information. Hundreds of participants flocked to area health clubs and have now joined after experiencing the facilities. Most participants formed teams and competed with other teams for most weight loss (winner was "Losing Weight in Style," whose five members lost a total of 97 pounds).

Of note is that the event is far from over. So enthusiastic were the participants that another meeting is being held March 2 to decide how to continue it, albeit on a less informal scale and without free club passes, for example.

Carson dubbed the county "The Fittest Little County in the Nation" and quickly became a cheerleader, appearing on British, Japanese and even Korean TV, plus The Today Show and Good Morning America, as well as in newspapers all across the country. The challenge she issued each time? For another city or county to match the local feat. Carson has said that a few people have responded to her challenge from as far as New York.

"But until we're dethroned," she wrote in a Feb. 27 column in the local paper, "we're the undisputed 'Fittest Little County in the Nation.'"

SNEWS® View: This was a truly amazing force to watch as it gathered steam last December. Who woulda thunk that a tiny community could come together with such force? Let's put some perspective on this for you: Nevada County -- the heart of the so-called Gold Country in the Sierra -- only has a population of about 95,000, spread far and wide over about 1,000 square miles of rough terrain, mountains and some snow-covered hills. That means that about 1 percent of the population took part in the Meltdown.

Compare for a moment: Could Chicago get 1 percent of its 2.9 million residents (about 29,000) to join together to work out, lose weight and get fit? Could Seattle get 1 percent of its population of about 570,000 (5,700, give or take a few) to not only lose mega-tons but also to meet once a week for spirited pep talks and fitness education? Could area restaurants get involved and build healthier menus? Would local clubs swing open doors and hand out free passes? Would a community paper dedicate a half-page-plus a week to event news and stories, as the paper here did?

Arnett told SNEWS® that he used to live in Chicago and sees no reason why such an event couldn't happen there or in other large cities. He suggests a different approach that has neighborhoods or communities forming larger teams to compete against other neighborhoods or communities. And, he stressed, the area's elected officials and business leaders would have to take part as he has to provide the spark to help get things rolling.

The local paper, The Union, editorialized: "Because it was mostly free -- thanks to the generosity of the health club owners and volunteers -- there were few excuses to not be involved. It had the best of all worlds going for it: nonpartisan, inclusive, fun, informative, good for you and free…. We lost 7,500 pounds, but what we gained as a community cannot be measure easily. We made friends with strangers. We learned about nutrition and sports injuries. We learned that going to a health club doesn't mean you have to be reed-thin…. The gains will be felt in the community long after the thrill of the losses has faded."

We at SNEWS see no reason why such an event couldn't be sparked by a fitness manufacturer, club or retailer in partnership with any of the above, with a focus on their own community. Everybody would get promotion out of it, AND perhaps help build a better and healthier community too. If you're interested in finding out more, email meltdownusa@earthlink.net or go to www.theunion.com/meltdown.

And stay tuned: The county's goal is to hit 8,000 pounds.

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