No one could have guessed that someone like Bobbi Schell would some day help lead a rural Iowa community out of an epidemic of expanding waistlines. After all, Bobbi has battled the scale most of her life, usually without success. By the fifth grade, when she weighed 170 pounds, she went on the first of many diets -- which failed, as did many more through the years.
But in 1998, everything changed for both Schell and many of the people in Dyersville, Iowa. It began when Mercy Medical Center started a 10-week-long, communitywide campaign to help the townspeople lose weight and improve their health. When the last pound had been lost, the 383 people in the program gathered together on top of an immense scale that is usually used to weigh trucks filled with corn and other sorts of cargo. The result: Collectively, they had lost a startling 3,998 pounds.
That success started a tidal wave of interest in the town's so-called Fight the Fat program, and the campaign has relaunched in Dyersville and surrounding communities every year since. Nearly 2,250 people have now taken part, and all together they have lost a mind-boggling 18,368 pounds. The recent release of a book called The Town That Lost a Ton has further publicized the success of the program, and other communities are now hungering to leap aboard the same weight-loss bandwagon.
War on Obesity
Until recently, Dyersville (population: 4,000) was best known as the town where Field of Dreams was filmed in 1988 in the midst of Iowa's cornfields. So when staff members of Mercy Medical Center debated whether a weight-loss challenge would attract the interest of townspeople, they eventually embraced the project with the attitude, "If we build it, they will come."
Schell, supervisor of Mercy's rehabilitation outreach services, joined with other hospital officials -- including Jane Clemen, a Mercy dietitian, and Dianna Kirkwood, the hospital's marketing director -- to organize the program. It includes
- A sensible eating plan that emphasizes balanced meals and low-fat foods and limits meat.
- Regular physical activity, ranging from cardio exercise classes to Sunday hikes to organized volleyball games.
- Lectures on stress management and health-enhancing cooking.
But according to those who lost the most, the key to Fight the Fat's success has been its emphasis on the "buddy system" and building relationships. During each 10-week session, participants join teams made up of six to 10 fellow thinness seekers, and they've fought the waistline wars together, convinced that there's strength in numbers. With their team names and logos plastered across their T-shirts--including The Love Handles, No Excuses, and The Melt Away Mamas -- they have crowded into spirited meetings at Dyersville's Commercial Club Park Pavilion, good-naturedly challenging other teams to see who can make the most pounds vanish by the following week's meeting.
The Power of Support
"For most people, trying to lose weight has always been a long, lonely battle," says Kirkwood, who shed 26 pounds on the program. "You're home alone with the refrigerator, or alone in the grocery store putting a bag of cookies into the shopping cart, and it can be difficult to keep any momentum going by yourself.
"But," adds Kirkwood, "with support teams built into our program, everyone has someone to lean on who is fighting the same battle. People can pick up the phone and say, 'I'm about to order a pizza. What should I do?' Or 'I'm going for a walk at noon. Please join me.'"
Roxanne Moore, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition consultant in Baltimore, agrees that a support system can spell the difference between success and failure for many dieters. "If you're accountable only to yourself, your motivation to stick with a program may waver at times," she says. "But when you're held accountable for your actions by others, you're more likely to follow through. And when you feel as though you're ready to eat your way through an entire bag of potato chips, it's important to know that there's someone you can call for encouragement. The challenge is to find people who provide friendly support rather than nagging or fierce competition."
Spurring on Success
In Dyersville, the weekly Fight the Fight gatherings almost take on the air of a revival meeting. There are cheers and music, banners and skits, and the walls are decorated with life-size drawings of people exercising and photos of low-fat fruits and vegetables. People often arrive at meetings carrying a "visual" of how much weight they want to lose. (One woman showed up with a 10-pound sack of lard!) Each session begins with about 10 minutes of simple exercises, often led by Schell, followed by lectures given by experts such as nutritionists, fitness trainers, and motivational speakers. By the end of the meeting, there is such energy and enthusiasm in the room that it's common for 150 or so folks to rush for the sidewalks for a late-night power walk.
"You often hear people say, 'I've never had so much fun losing weight,'" says Schell, who has lost 45 pounds on Fight the Fat -- and has kept it off.
Local restaurants have lured Dyersville dieters through their doors by placing inserts in their menus that list the number of calories and the amount of fat in popular items. Even the neighborhood McDonald's has offered alternative low-fat foods such as grilled chicken salads and low-fat apple bran muffins. And at the town's only grocery store, dietitian Clemen has placed signs by food items that won't sabotage the program.
Now that the new book -- co-written by Clemen, Kirkwood, and Schell -- is getting attention, the staff at Mercy Medical Center is fielding calls from hospitals across the country wanting to adopt the program. "We're putting together a manual to show them how to replicate this in other communities," says Kirkwood. "From the calls we're getting, it can't be available soon enough!"