Boston Moves (a Little) for Health

The city is coming up short in Menino's "Million Pound Challenge."

boston moves for healthPhoto via Thinkstock

One million pounds: That was the amount that Mayor Menino challenged the city of Boston to collectively shed this year. Announced at his State of the City address back in January, the challenge officially kicked off with the launch of the Boston Moves for Health website at the end of April.

The idea was simple. Residents of Boston would log on to the website and create an account, where they could track their weight loss online throughout the year. To encourage people to participate, registration drives were held across the city, and free pedometers were handed out to those that signed up at the events. They would use these to log the number of steps that they moved each day online so that they could track their progress toward completing Menino’s second challenge: to collectively walk (or run, or dance, or skip) 10 million miles.

For the city to reach the million-pound mark, residents would need to log a collective 83,334 pounds each month.

While the challenge garnered considerable media coverage when it was announced, little has been said about it in the months that have followed. So I decided to log on to the website and see where we stood as a city in terms of meeting our goal. The current numbers were displayed on a ticker at the top of the website’s home page. They were far from encouraging.

10,142 pounds: That’s the total amount that we’ve lost so far. Nearly four months into the mayor’s challenge, we’ve lost less than a sixth of what we would need to collectively lose in a single month. And we’re doing little better to meet our 10-million-mile mark. With just 394,414 miles logged so far, we’re roughly three million miles short of what we would need.

What’s going on here? While a million pounds might sound like a lot, it’s hardly a challenge for a city with 625,000 residents. Logging our weight loss together, we’d each need to lose just 1.6 pounds. And if it takes a calorie deficit of roughly 3,500 to lose a pound, that means we would only have to give up the caloric equivalent of about eight McDonald’s Big Macs to lose the weight.

But let’s say only a third of Boston is overweight and actually needs to slim down (the real figure is something close to that). If only that segment of our population were to participate in the challenge, they still wouldn’t have much to lose—just 4.8 pounds in a year—a loss so small that your own mother might not notice the difference.

We’re supposed to be the third fittest city in the nation—so why are we coming up so short in a fitness challenge so small?

Other areas of the country have launched similar challenges that have produced results that far outweigh our own. Alabama hosted its sixth annual weight loss contest earlier this year. Scale Back Alabama—as the 10-week, statewide competition was dubbed—drew nearly 30,000 participants who reported a cumulative weight loss of nearly 150,000 pounds. That means that in just two and a half months, participants from the second fattest state in the country dropped an average of five pounds each—more than triple the number that each of us would need to lose to meet the mayor’s challenge.

So what gives? How was the state of Alabama able to achieve such remarkable results from a state consistently ranked among the heaviest and least physically active in the country?

With cash, of course. Participants registered for the contest in teams of four, and the teams that collectively lost the most weight won prizes ranging from $1,000 to $4,000, to be split among its members. Another 50 individual winners were randomly drawn from a pool of participants who lost at least 10 pounds and awarded $100 each, and another five individuals who lost any weight were drawn to win a $50 cash prize.

Now, I recognize that I’m comparing a statewide program that has taken place every year for the past six years to a citywide program that’s still in its first few months. It’s not exactly an equal comparison. Alabama’s program is also much shorter and more results-oriented. Boston Moves for Health, on the other hand, is focused on creating long-term lifestyle changes. Its free fitness classes and online resources are meant to encourage everyone to live a healthier and more active life of which weight loss is just one part.

But I still think that the Alabamians are on to something: Cash is a far better motivator for most people than a free pedometer. With eight months left to complete the challenge, I hope that Boston Moves for Health is able to develop incentives that inject similar excitement into its campaign—and achieve similar results.