Mayor John Robert Smith sets his alarm at 5:15 every morning to jog two miles and get in 45 minutes of upper or lower body exercise. Being mayor of Meridian, MS is a full-time job, and one he is impressively committed to. He says if he didn’t make his day start this early, he’d find a million reasons not to work in the exercise. “It’s absolutely critical that you give up the excuses,” says Smith. The alternative he says is an early grave.
In the past two years the 59-year old has lost about 30 pounds. Having been a fat child and seeing his family’s struggles with weight, he proudly says he’s now in the best physical shape of his life. Mayor Smith says he knows how it feels to be stuck inside a fat body and what obesity does to one’s health. He’s painfully aware of the hikes you won’t take, the pretty views you give up and the stairs you won’t climb when you’re overweight.
Obesity is a cause near and dear to Smith’s healthier heart, not only because of his personal experience, but because his home state of Mississippi ranks as the fattest state in the union. He said USA Today ran a story naming the U.S. the fattest country in the world. Couple that with Mississippi’s fattest state badge and he says he realized “that makes Mississippi the fattest people in the world.”
Mayor Smith says it was then that he decided to do something. “It was a natural fit to have the public join me because I’m a cheerleader for the action I’m already taking myself.” His says it’s so important for leaders who champion a cause like this to participate right along side the citizens. Along with Meridian’s Parks and Recreation director Mark Naylor, they launched a city-wide campaign to take Meridian and Mississippi off of those fattest lists. In October, “Just Lose It! Meridian” was launched. They simply asked 1000 people in the community to sign up, commit to lose 10 pounds each and by January the city would be down 10,000 pounds. They currently have close to 1000 people enrolled, including organizations like hospitals and banks and a total weight loss of about 5,000 pounds to date. They city was so taken with the program that they requested an extension through March. So Mayor- Diets In Review will be back in the spring to find out how everyone is doing.
On yesterday’s episode of Oprah, she and Bob Greene announced the kick off of the 2008 Best Life Challenge. To promote the weight loss campaign, she visited her home state of Mississippi because, what better place to launch a weight loss campaign than in the fattest state? After learning of the Just Lose It! Meridian campaign, Oprah chose that community to help with the launch.
Meridian was aware that Bob Greene was going to visit the community this past Friday, but it was only two days prior to taping that they learned that the daytime queen would also be attending. They had to ramp up preparations for what would be an “exponentially grander event.” Oprah’s staff complimented the mayor on how well the crowd of about 4,000 was behaved. He says the town really enjoyed the event and the national attention that this will bring to Meridian and Mississippi.
Not only did Meridian serve as a beautiful backdrop for Oprah’s broadcast, but the Mayor says the scenery makes for an impressive backdrop to get fit in as well. Meridian shares a border with Alabama, and enjoys a hilly landscape and a 3600-acre Bonita Lakes Park with gorgeous jogging trails, horseback riding and hiking trails.
Launched in the cooler months when people are more likely to get out and exercise, Just Lose It! made sure to give citizens all the tools they needed to help them reach their goals. “There’s no weigh in, it’s on the honor system,” explains Smith. “We created the Web site, fitness centers waived their joining fees for the campaign and hospital dietitians passed out information on proper diet. The day we kicked off we had some fitness experts show good exercises that you can do at home or while traveling. You don’t always have to go to the gym.”
“We tried to cover all of those bases with the public so that they have all the information they need. We created the Web site where you can log-in to report weight and link to other sites about proper diet and exercise. We tried to give you the choices and options you need for information so it’s a well-rounded program.” Mayor Smith goes on to explain that arming his citizens with these important tools was to ensure that no one thought of this as “a fad for a certain dress size or to get into a bathing suit for the beach, it’s a lifestyle change. Face it that way.”
He says that’s important because of the lifestyle in the South. “In the South, we fry everything. And the vegetables we cook in pork fat.” He knows that it’s an unhealthy diet and the hope for the Meridian community is that they will also see this.
The Mayor comments that this is an easy and affordable program for other cities and mayors to implement. “We’ll be glad to furnish the information we have and the lessons we’ve learned,” he says. He just reminds that if you’re going to implement this in your community, be prepared to commit yourself and “demonstrate through leadership.”
The next time you’re in Mississippi and pass through Meridian, if you’re up early enough, you just might see Mayor John Robert Smith jogging through town before the day gets busy. And he’s likely to be amongst your biggest cheerleaders for weight loss.
Congratulations Meridian- and good luck on losing it!