MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. People living in the nation's smallest communities are more likely to have bigger waistlines. It used to be just the opposite. Farming, fishing, and other rugged work once kept rural people slim but rural life is a bit more sedentary these days and that has one small town going on one big diet. NPR's Howard Berkes paid a visit.

HOWARD BERKES: There's a new Monday ritual in a remote town in Central Oregon called Fossil.

Ms. MARIE STEVENS: All right Marie here we go.

Ms. KERI BIANCO: Feeling light as a feather today?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARIE STEVENS: Oh, I hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: Health clinic worker, Keri Bianco, leads Marie Stevens down a hallway and toward a moment of truth: an electronic scale just below the eye chart. Stevens kicks off her cross trainers and steps on the scale.

Ms. BIANCO: Are you ready for this Marie?

Ms. STEVENS: What?

Ms. BIANCO: 3.5.

Ms. STEVENS: All right.

BERKES: That's 3.5 pounds loss that week, a personal best.

Ms. STEVENS: I finally broke the mark of 2.5.

Ms. BIANCO: That's awesome.

Ms. STEVENS: All right. Woo hoo.

I'm excited because I'm losing weight and getting healthy.

BERKES: Stevens is trying to shed 20 of her 250 pounds in a three-month contest that has swept Fossil. Eighty people are involved, that's close to 20 percent of the population. It's like that obesity TV show which scared Stevens into joining.

Ms. STEVENS: Right before Christmas I watched "The Biggest Loser," crying and crying and I thought that's me. I'm like them. I need to do something, and then when I found out about this program, I was like, yep, I'm going to join and I've been doing it ever since.

BERKES: This is another new Monday ritual.

Unidentified Woman #1: Pounds for the week.

Unidentified Woman #2: Total pounds.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #2: Get a drum roll.

(Soundbite of cheering, stomping)

Unidentified Woman #1: 54.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BERKES: The town's collectively weight loss so far.

Unidentified Woman #1: 590.

Unidentified Woman #3: Wow. Whoo.

Unidentified Woman #1: We're almost to 600 pounds total.

Unidentified Man: Wow. Cool.

(Soundbite of applause)

BERKES: That's like losing three people, they joke, or an entire heifer. After the Monday weigh-ins, Fossil's dieters and exercisers crowd into this small conference room for pep talks, fitness advice, and awards. The weekly winner takes home a trophy, a pound of fat, or what looks like a fatty glob. There are also testimonials.

Unidentified Man #2: Got two pounds to go and I'll be on my goal of 25 pounds.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #4: When was the last time you weighed that?

Unidentified Man #2: 25 years ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

25 to 30 years ago. I'm getting to half a pound of (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #4: And Betty when was the last time you weighed that?

BETTY: 1970.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: The group then heads over to the grade school gym, an old white barn-like building, where the real fitness work begins. It's used seven days a week for resistance training, tai chi, meditation, indoor walking, and aerobics.

Ms. DEBBIE BOETTNER (Physician's Assistant): Relax those arms now, pump them a little bit, oh yeah, you look good. How are you doing back row?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. BOETTNER: Oh yeah.

BERKES: It's a mixed group: heavy and thin, young and old, retirees and business owners and housewives. Arms and knees pump, sweat drips, faces are flushed. The taskmaster is Debbie Boettner, the physician's assistant at the clinic.

Ms. BOETTNER: Thankfully we have a gymnasium we could use.

BERKES: So there's no equipment there.

Ms. BOETTNER: There's no equipment. No treadmills, no elliptical machines, no stair climbers. When we climb stairs they're actual stairs and we climb them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

We do it the old fashioned way.

BERKES: Actually there are two pieces of gear - mats borrowed from the school and resistance bands found for five bucks and free shipping on the internet. This is an innovation in the 12 week program.

Ms. BOETTNER: We started out the first week or two with my husband buying 500 pounds of sand and people brought water bottles and depending on the size of the water bottles, you had either a two or a three or a four pound weight. We filled them up with sand and that's what we used at first.

BERKES: It takes hours to drive to a real fitness center or even fast food, which helps diminish temptation. And the town's sole grocery store, the Mercantile, provides enforcement. Some of the clerks count calories for customers, says owner, Betty McNeil.

Ms. BETTY MCNEIL (Owner, The Mercantile): Two hundred and thirty calories in that cupcake. Do you know what you're doing? Do you really want that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: So how far do you have to drive to cheat?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCNEIL: You have to leave town. So 20 miles - 20 miles to the next Twinkie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: There's also positive reinforcement with more fruit, vegetables, and yogurt in the Mercantile's coolers. Demand for the good stuff has skyrocketed and the store front window charts the town's progress. Even the Shamrock, the bar and restaurant around the corner, is involved.

Ms. ANNA MARIE ODOM (Manager, Shamrock Bar and Restaurant): Their whole lunch today is going to be approximately about 250 calories for the biggest loser special - for their lunch special from the Shamrock today.

BERKES: That's for the taco salad without the taco or chili, says manager Anna Marie Odom. It's 800 calories for the regular version. Odom has noticed the difference in customers eating right and exercising.

Ms. ODOM: There were people who needed knee surgery because their knees are so bad, now no longer need knee surgery. People's blood pressure is down. Their cholesterol levels are down. It's just astonishing. We've got to be one of the healthiest little communities in Oregon.

BERKES: There are also social benefits notes Melanie Robinson, a graphic designer, as she pauses to catch her breath after a workout. Small towns have their social sectors, she says.

Ms. MELANIE ROBINSON: The Methodist Church sector, the Baptist Church sector, the Shamrock sector, the older sector, the Red Hat Ladies, the courthouse people - I don't know, it's just - it's brought people together.

BERKES: Weight loss helped heal Fossil after a divisive proposal to put a sex offenders treatment facility nearby. Here's County Judge Jeanne Burch.

Ms. JEANNE BURCH (Judge, Wheeler County): Well, what I've seen - them all in the same room laughing, talking, visiting with each other. I saw some on the street the other day that I knew that were on the opposite sides of the issue, talking. I felt like it was healing because they refocused into something that was so positive, and the positive is to be healthy.

BERKES: The weight loss contest ends at the end of the month. The winner gets the pound of fat and $600, but townspeople vow it won't end there. There's a half marathon coming up. The workouts will continue and there are plans to turn exercise into community service by chopping and stacking firewood for people too infirm to do it themselves.

Back at the Mercantile, owner Betty McNeil hones in on what might be the biggest reason this biggest loser contest is so big in Fossil. The surrounding county was already one of the poorest in Oregon before the national economy tanked.

Ms. MCNEIL: That's what's been nice about this. It's given us something else to think about. You know, we have had so little control over what's happened to our retirement. What can you control? Well, your diet and your weight loss and your physical activity. You can control that.

BERKES: And as if on cue, the grocery clerk rings up a woman buying a slab of bacon, a carton of cigarettes, and a half dozen candy bars. We're all too polite to say anything.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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