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Wednesday, January 3, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tiny Alabama town drops 10,000 pounds

Newhouse News Service

JACKSON, Ala. — As LaKeshia Dixon pushed herself through a weight-loss challenge to shave more than 100 pounds off her figure last year, she said, she began to feel like a preacher.

Dixon, manager of one of 24 weigh-in stations across this southern Alabama town, said she had to set a good example for others enrolled in Jackson's weight-loss campaign.

In January 2006, a group of residents concerned about the town's health started a free program called "Get Lost in Jackson." Over the next year, participants checked in at monthly weigh-ins; attended classes on fitness, nutrition and health; and began exercising.

By the end of 12 months, the town had lost a collective 10,000 pounds.

"It was sort of like the tsunami that overwhelmed us," said Kay Crosby, a local aerobics instructor and nutritional counselor who helped develop the campaign. "The life changes, it's just been incredible."

Crosby, whose husband, Sid, is a family physician, started thinking about some type of weight-loss motivation program in 2005. More and more people — adults and children — were coming to Family Medical of Jackson, where her husband works, with symptoms of early heart disease and diabetes. News reports repeatedly highlighted Alabama's place near the top in the country for obesity.

Crosby and others raised $9,000 from businesses, purchased some scales and advertised the program in the local newspaper.

In the first month, 1,717 of the town's 5,400 residents signed up.

Get Lost participants were required to weigh in at least once a month, or they were disqualified. For each pound lost, participants could drop their names into a hat to be eligible to win $100 at the end of that month.

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To stay eligible for end-of-program prizes, Get Lost participants also had to attend at least four educational classes taught throughout the year and lose at least 10 percent of their body weight.

By the end of December, 79 people had attained all of those goals.

Last week they gathered at Jackson High School for a closing ceremony, including chances to win $7,000 in cash prizes and to roll the dice to win a $25,000 car.

Many of those who didn't make it to the finish line still reaped benefits, one local doctor said.

"A lot of them are like me; they didn't complete the program, but they know what to do now," said Dr. Keith Scott, also a doctor at Family Medical.

The program's success took the town by surprise, said Kay Crosby. She met her own 10 percent goal on the last day.

The original weight-loss goal for the year was 2,006 pounds. "We exceeded that weight loss the first month," she said.

The town's transformation has been dramatic, she said.

"If you just come to our town any time, day or night, you can see people walking. People comment to me all the time, 'The whole town is moving,' " Crosby said.

Several local restaurants joined the effort. One seafood eatery with a menu heavy on fried foods added broiled catfish to the selection, she said. Others supplemented salad bars with darker lettuce, which has more nutritional value.

"Three restaurants that came on board with us actually hired a chef from Atlanta that came in to consult with them on how they could make their menus healthier," Crosby said.

The biggest motivation, however, was an entire town watching you, participants said. In grocery stores, at town events, even at restaurants 60 miles south in Mobile, Crosby had people peer over her shoulder to see what she was eating.

"It was great because you would run into people," said Brenda Schell, a fifth-grade teacher who helped set up a weigh station at her school. "It was just a big encouragement to each other, knowing that other people were trying to do the same thing."

Schell lost 56 pounds during the campaign and plans to participate again this year to lose more. She does an aerobic walking program six days a week, and she and her husband have changed what they eat based on what they learned from the lectures.

Dixon, who lost 109 pounds, said the accountability factor proved to be the most successful tool she has ever had for losing weight. In the past, even as she encountered people with health problems at her job at a pharmacy, she could not muster the willpower to stay with a diet.

"Nothing in the past ever worked," she said.

During the first week of the program, Dixon lost about 12 pounds, but another woman at her weigh-in had lost more.

"I thought, 'Oh, it's on now.' It was competitive, but it's fun to do it together," she said.

Now, Dixon wakes every weekday morning at 4:30 to walk three miles and is well on her way to her weight-loss goal of 142 pounds. She and Schell are ready to "get lost in Jackson again" this year with the whole town watching.

"Losing weight is not easy," Schell said. "Now the thing's going to be to see how many of us either maintain what we lost or don't do any backsliding."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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