It’s like a small-town Norman Rockwell scene, updated for the 21st century.
A Latino family strolls through the park, immersed in conversation. Coming up fast behind is a woman in designer exercise gear and earplugs, intent on maintaining her power-walking pace. Bringing up the rear is a young man with his husky, both of them staring up at a patch of sun that has appeared from behind the clouds.
In real life, this is Albert Lea, a town of 18,000 where people are working to prove that healthy lifestyles like walking and good nutrition are not just big-city things.
“We’re not a resort town or a college town, we’re an ag-based rural city promoting healthy living because it’s the right thing to do and it’s how we want to live and want our children to live,” explains Ellen Kehr, a former City Council member who is a leader in the effort to make Albert Lea healthier.
Many people here got started in 2009 when the town adopted a communitywide approach to wellness laid out in “Blues Zones,” a bestselling book by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner; it examined places around the world where people live longest and healthiest.
What Albert Lea has accomplished since then offers inspiration for smaller towns and cities across the country. “The idea is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Buettner, whose new book, “The Blue Zones Solution,” chronicles community success stories around the world. In partnership with Healthways, a Tennessee-based company focusing on well-being improvement solutions, Blue Zones is now launching a second phase in town.
Around one-quarter of adults in Albert Lea participated in the first Blue Zones project, along with half of local workplaces and nearly all kids in grades 3-8. Encouraging everyone to engage in more physical activity was a chief thrust of the campaign, funded in part by AARP.
It appears to have worked.
Walking has increased 70 percent in five years, according to pedestrian counts by the National Vitality Center, a local initiative. Smoking dropped 4 percent, and participants collectively lost almost 4 tons of weight, notes Buettner. Residents formed about 30 groups to walk or bike together regularly, nearly half of which are still active. Restaurants and markets offer better options for healthy eating.
Even on a gray, chilly weekday afternoon, the 5-mile trail around Fountain Lake draws more walkers and bikers than you’d expect in a town set among the soybean fields of southern Minnesota. Downtown is filled with people on foot heading to the bank, the library, the kitchen store, clothing stores, churches, schools, restaurants, and — in a classic Minnesota touch — the Sportsman’s Tavern, which advertises cabbage roll hot dish as the daily special.
“This has become a piece of who we are as a community, an opportunity to become an even better community,” declares Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr.
City Council Member Al Brooks, who now walks 2½ miles every day, credits the campaign with improving his health. “When I started four years ago, I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Now my cholesterol is lower, my blood pressure is 116/70 and I lost 15 pounds.”
How did Albert Lea get people back on their feet walking, especially in a rural region where driving is embedded in the fabric of everyday life? Officials credit the groups formed, a public education campaign about the benefits of physical activity and making the city’s streets and parks safer and more appealing for pedestrians.
“Small towns can reinvent themselves as places faster than big towns,” Dan Burden — one of America’s foremost authorities on walkable communities — explained recently to a roomful of officials at City Hall working on further improvements for the town.
Burden helped Albert Lea map out its strategies in 2009. “When I first came into Albert Lea, I’ll be honest, it looked like the downtown was closed,” he told officials. “That’s changed now. Albert Lea, I am proud of you.”
Jay Walljasper is the author of “The Great Neighborhood Book” and “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.”