The pioneering goal was to change an entire community's health habits, potentially adding 10,000 years of life to this city of 18,000 residents.
All over town habits certainly changed: The Trails Travel Center truck stop put more healthful food on its menu. Lou-Rich Machines added a quarter-mile walking course through its production floor. The city plowed up 40 new community gardens for residents.
Yet the ambitious AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, which officially ends with a community celebration today, may miss its overall mark. The five-month experiment has revealed both enthusiasm for healthier living and the difficulty of changing a town's way of life.
"We have a pretty good idea why we won't officially get our 5,000 people adding 10,000 years," said City Manager Victoria Simonsen, referring to a need for more widespread Internet access for the program's longevity calculation exercises. "But overall, this is a huge success. People are walking, they talk about food choices, they volunteer for loads of things. They're changing their lives."
This evening's celebration will be equal parts wrap-up and launching the next phase -- "to make this a permanent part of Albert Lea," she said.
The fundamental principle behind Albert Lea's makeover is that diets and exercise alone don't work. Changing health requires changing the community -- the normal rhythms and expectations in schools, workplaces, restaurants, government, grocery stores -- even within families and in neighborhoods.
So 30 kids gather at 7:40 a.m. three days a week for a half-mile "walking school bus" hike to Lakeview Elementary (where a walking track is set up for sixth-graders who are too cool to use the playground equipment). Pledging to make workplaces more healthful, 35 companies with 4,358 employees are instituting wellness committees, adding healthful snacks and examining smoking policies. Business is up by one-third at the twice-weekly farmers market. Restaurants and schools have changed to more healthful menus. A total of 992 people have taken a "Finding Your Purpose" seminar. Plus, for the first half of 2009, city government health claims were in cut half, perhaps nudged down by the project.
Blue zones for long lives
The program is modeled on research by Minneapolis author Dan Buettner, who wrote a book and National Geographic article chronicling lifestyles of people in four "blue zone" areas around the world with large numbers of centenarians -- Okinawa, Sardinia, a peninsula in Costa Rica and Loma Linda, Calif.
The pilot is sponsored by Buettner's Blue Zones organization, AARP and a $750,000 grant from the UnitedHealth Foundation.
Buettner's research team found that diet, behavior, outlook and stress-coping mechanisms affect how long -- and how healthfully -- people live.
Public health officials at the University of Minnesota translated those findings and other research into a 35-question longevity calculator called the Vitality Compass.
Organizers hoped that 5,000 Albert Lea adults would use that calculator at least twice, between May and October, to see the impact of healthful living. Only 1,300 used it at least once, and leaders will announce tonight how many of those completed a final longevity calculation.
"We really overestimated the number of people who had easy access and familiarity with the Internet," said Joel Spoonheim of Minneapolis, who coordinated the pilot program. "I don't think we'll have the same problem if we go next to a larger city, but we've learned a lot about how to do this better."
A score of cities are lining up to become the next Blue Zone site, said Buettner, who co-directs the Albert Lea program with Leslie Lytle of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
The Vitality Project also has fostered a lot of innovation in a city that prides itself on creativity.
"Albert Lea can become the vitality tourism destination," said city development director Bob Graham, 69, a fervent advocate who also writes poems about the city's future.
The project's impact shows up all over town, from lunchroom conversations over fruit instead of donuts at Lou-Rich Machine to City Council meetings to approve about 9,000 feet of sidewalk construction -- three years' worth -- in a single year.
Signs of 'Blue Zoneness'
"You see Blue Zoneness everywhere you go," said Lenore Fries, 66, while shopping at the farmers market. The project asked for 50 Blue Zone "ambassadors" to help drum up support and got 150, including Fries.
"Smaller plates, more vegetables and less meat, getting outside and moving, grocery stores marking healthy food, so many signs of change," she said.
Residents are even using different language. Over 10 weeks, 550 adults joined 70 new neighborhood or workplace walking moais, an Okinawan word meaning small social group, recording 75,115,599 steps. That's 1 1/2 times around the Earth. Hundreds of residents routinely wear blue plastic bracelets emblazoned with the Okinawan phrase hara hachi bu, which means, roughly, stop eating when you feel 80 percent full.
"At that point you really are full, but you don't know it for about 20 minutes," said Cathy Purdie, a manager at the Trails Travel Center truckstop.
"So many people eat out, and if you give people some healthy choices, they'll eat better," said Purdie. After taking the "Purpose" seminar, she and her husband decided to return to college. Last week, her final Vitality Compass exercise showed that her efforts have lengthened her projected lifespan from 92 to age 98.5.
"This is a really big deal for the city," said Simonsen, the city manager. "I think 8,000 or 9,000 people have participated in some way. We're talking about health of the people and health of the city."
At a meeting last week, the 15-member Vitality Project Steering Committee agreed to be replaced by a new committee that will take the project from pilot to permanent.
"In 2011 we want to hold the first annual Blue Zones Vitality Institute -- a session for people from other cities to come to see what we're doing, to learn from Dan Buettner and the other experts who created this concept," Simonsen said. "We're really energized."
In interviews, dozens of Albert Lea residents said they intend to keep pursuing the changes they've begun -- from 6-year-old Sadie Neist, who wants to keep trudging to Lakeview Elementary "even when it's really snowy and cold," to Sandy Quinn, 63, who is moving her outdoor noon-hour walks to the Lou Rich Machine indoor walking track.
While pledging to continue, some families recognize that their choices involve sacrifice.
"We're a pretty active family that's even more active now with Blue Zones," said Bob Furland, 46, who manages the city's two ice rinks. "We've made a lot of changes, and they're not all real easy. For instance, our teenage boys took the TV out of their bedrooms, and even tougher, I don't eat Ho Hos for breakfast anymore."
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253