The Mayor of Oklahoma City Talks Obesity

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The Atlantic's Future of the City event today featured a panel with Julian Castro and Mick Cornett, the mayors of Oklahoma City and San Antonio, respectively. Both cities have among the highest obesity rates in the country and have responded with special initiatives. Mick Cornett has become a bit of anti-obesity celebrity, appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show and The Biggest Loser to hawk his city's weight loss campaign.

In 2007, Cornett stood in front of the elephant enclosure at the Oklahoma City Zoo and announced that he was putting his city on a diet. "The issue with Oklahoma City and obesity is we're not talking about it," Cornett said at the Atlantic panel. "We're nice people, and it's not nice to talk about the way people look." Once he did start talking about obesity, though, the city made major strides in combating it. 42,198 residents have signed up to track their weight loss progress online. So far, they've lost a total of 577,127 pounds (they're aiming for 1 million). In 2008, Men's Fitness ranked Oklahoma City the eighth fattest city in the world. This year, it dropped to the 17th fattest.

Cornett has focused on creating a more exercise-conducive infrastructure, redesigning downtown streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly, constructing new gyms in inner-city schools and wellness centers for seniors, and building 50 miles of new jogging and walking paths.

At the panel, however, he admitted that exercise is not enough:

The one thing that we do a bit differently is we talk about food intake. If you're really serious about obesity, it's about what you eat and how much you eat. Too many government programs focus on fitness levels because it's a little bit easier on elected officials. It's easier to talk about. But the truth is, if you're obese, you're not going to exercise your way out of it. You've got to focus on what you eat.

Cornett talked obesity yesterday evening with First Lady Michelle Obama, who has praised his program before. Her anti-obesity initiative focuses on children in an effort to solve the problem within the timeline of a generation. Cornett, however, is more optimistic. "I do think, from a cultural standpoint, we can win this in ten years," he told me after the panel.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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