Leta Jussila (left) and Michelle Dean are the founders of the Santa Cruz Challenge, which begins its fourth year Feb. 22. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Leta Jussila (left) and Michelle Dean are the founders of the Santa Cruz Challenge, which begins its fourth year Feb. 22. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Turning over a new leaf of good health is always a challenge. But in the case of the 12-week Santa Cruz Challenge, it's the heaping spoonful of Santa Cruz that seems to make the medicine go down.

Now entering its fourth year, the SCC is the brainchild of Dr. Michelle Bean, chiropractor, and Dr. Leta Jussila, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, who have co-owned Optimal Health and Fitness for 10 years now.

While the challengers with the highest percentage of self-improvement do win prizes—the grand prize being $1,000—the SCC is more like a really long health and fitness party than it is a competition. Improvement is based on body strength and endurance—not weight loss. And more than anything, it's a story of some 75 people getting their groove back.

“In the clinic, you always want your patients to be moving their body, because otherwise the modalities in general become codependent,” says Jussila. “I don't care if it's acupuncture or chiropractic, if patients aren't moving their bodies then we have to do more work, and we actually end up becoming like technicians.”

But Bean and Jussila know that not everyone likes going to the gym, and most people don't have an easy time just jumping into an African dance class or scaling an artificial rock face if they've never shaken that way or strapped themselves into a harness before.

“I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, 'I've always wanted to try capoiera,' 'I've always wanted to try jiu-jitsu,' or 'I've always wanted to try that salsa class'—and they never do it,” says Bean. “It's always like ‘I'll do it some other time.’ So, we're going to do something different each week.”

Operating on the proven truth that it's easier to leave one's comfort zone if accompanied by others, each of the SCC's 12 weeks will feature a different fitness studio in town, from yoga and martial arts to swimming, rock climbing and aerial dancing—which is, by the way, exactly what it sounds like.

But as is only right for a holistic approach to health, Bean and Jussila have also contracted a solid list of doctors and practitioners from around the community to present health lectures throughout the challenge, covering everything from healthy sexuality and relationships to time management, detoxing and financial health.

“If you come in for stress, we know how to get rid of stress. But stress for what, is it money, relationship issues?” says Jussila of this holistic approach to health. “Chinese medicine is all about getting to the root. In China, you're only paid when patients are well.”

The idea is that challengers can pick and choose the topics and activities that resonate with them while making new friends, and learning how to live a healthier lifestyle. Sure, there will be carrots dangled; each time someone takes a class or shares an activity in social media, they'll be entered to win a prize that week. But if the ultimate goal is one of permanent change, it seems to be working.

“I had made up [my mind] that I'm 50, walking's enough, I'm in shape enough,” says Marlissa McGranahan, who participated in the challenge last year. “It really did challenge me. I feel like I need to be moving, like walking's not enough, 50's not old, and there's a lot more to do. The challenge really did open that up for me, thinking about the rest of my life.”

“Most people go from car to office to grocery store to home, and they're always in buildings,” says Jussila. “So when you get people that don't know each other, and put them on land, in parks, in a group setting over a period of time, they have long lasting changes. And it's not that we're the best personal trainers in town. If you get all these elements at sunrise and sunset, at the most energetic time of the day, right, and you have them connecting with their breath, feeling the negative ions off the ocean, they get much more efficient fitness change.”

Up for the challenge? The SCC begins Feb 22. Register at