Albert Lea is proving that the concepts that extend life in exotic Blue Zone locales can change life in a Midwestern city.
ALBERT LEA, MINN. - Kevin Boyer was a Cokeaholic.
"I'd start with a Coke for breakfast and most days I'd put down five more before the day was done," said Boyer, 56, waiting patiently in the parking lot outside St. Theodore Catholic Church for the rest of his Southside Rockets moai to show up. "No surprise the doctor told me I've got diabetes and prescribed metformin."
Moai? "That's Okinawan," said Boyer, a Verizon field technician. "Pretty much anybody around here can tell you. It means a group of friends that get together to walk and get to know each other better."
There's also hara hachi bu, not heard on quite as many street corners in town, though a commonly understood concept here meaning "eat until you're 80 percent full."
They're both tenets of the Blue Zones Vitality Project, launched on a frigid February morning in 2009 when a few dozen Albert Lea residents and some visiting experts trudged the streets to assess how friendly they were for walkers and bikers.
Since then, moais have been a core part of the city's attempt to create a community lifestyle where the right choices for exercise, diet and emotional health also are the easy choices. Moais are just one sign of how life has changed in this city of 18,000 residents.
Boyer and his friends, who take twice-weekly hourlong walks, are part of the experiment that continues in Albert Lea and is now moving into cities in Iowa and California. The question: Can good-health practices of the world's longest-lived communities be transplanted into a small Midwestern city?
It's not just a feel-good concept.
Brian Mattson, a part of Boyer's moai and a social worker for people with mental illness, joined the Blue Zones project, like 786 others in town, by filling out a Vitality Compass questionnaire to see what his lifestyle said about how long he'd live.
At 38, he learned, there was a good chance he'd make it to age 52.
Lessons of the Blue Zones
Minneapolis native Dan Buettner developed the Blue Zones concept a decade ago as he researched five communities -- in Sardinia, Okinawa, Costa Rica, Greece and Seventh-day Adventists living in Loma Linda, Calif. -- where people live to be 100 at a rate 10 times greater than the U.S. average.
That led to a National Geographic article, two books and a company that turned the Blue Zones concepts into a program to help communities harness schools, businesses, families and governments to improve residents' health and well-being.
"We know diets don't work long-term for most people. We all have done this -- started diets, or exercise programs, or quit smoking -- and what happens? After a while, we quit," Buettner said.
"What we need is a healthy lifestyle -- healthy for us as individuals, families, groups of friends and entire communities," he told the people of Albert Lea.
Almost immediately, hundreds of residents attended two-hour "purpose" workshops to help them identify and enhance their talents and skills as a way to add zest to their lives and build the community.
The city agreed to build walking and biking paths, and pay half the cost of new sidewalks.
Some restaurants added healthier choices to menus. A grocery opened a Blue Zones checkout lane with healthful snacks and no candy. About 70 walking moais were launched.
After the hoopla was over
But what would happen when the excitement wore off?
"That was always part of the test," said Randy Kehr, director of the Chamber of Commerce. "Would the changes stick after the TV cameras and national hoopla went away? The answer is yes -- pretty much."
You can see the Blue Zones impact in how people eat and exercise, how they find new ways to build community and get to know each other, how they are cutting back areas for smoking and expanding opportunities for altruism -- all key elements in creating a Blue Zones community.
There still are about 30 moais for people who walk, dance or bike together; carts with healthy snacks at schools and a "walking school bus" of students led by parents who walk to an elementary school; four new community summer celebrations on blocked-off downtown streets, and companies vying for wellness awards.
Now with a new partner, wellness consultant Healthways, the Blue Zones program has expanded to three California beach communities near Los Angeles and four Iowa cities, with six more to be chosen by early 2013. That's an attempt to move Iowa from the 16th-healthiest, measured by the Gallup Healthways Wellbeing Index, to the top (Minnesota is second, behind Utah).
But there is more to do in Albert Lea, organizers agree.
"Our biggest lesson is we can do it, but you can't rely solely on volunteers to keep it going," said City Council Member Ellen Kehr, who is helping lead a Blue Zones project 40 miles away in MasonCity, Iowa.
She and her husband, director of the Chamber of Commerce, sit on a 13-member steering committee for a National Vitality Center. High on the agenda is finding money to hire a part-time director who would coordinate activities in the city.
"After the first year there was a bit of a lull. Now we're rebuilding," said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams.
Instead of volunteers, the city's Parks and Recreation Department now tracks the moais' activities and helps lead the Sample Saturday Series, which lets residents try archery, swimming, yoga, disc golf, kayaking and a host of other activities.
"We're doing well. We can do better -- get more churches involved, build more volunteerism," said Bob Graham, Albert Lea city planner and early champion. "But when we stop and consider, we've started something that will change us forever."
Adding years to life
On average, those who participated in the Blue Zones program added an average of 2.9 years of life, based on their longevity scores 10 months after they began in 2009.
With a far better diet and regular exercise, Boyer, the Verizon employee, no longer takes diabetes medication.
And Mattson, the 38-year-old social worker who looked like he might die at age 52? "I'm still overweight. I eat better, but I'm not perfect," he said with a laugh.
He continues his 3-mile walks, plays disc golf on the city's new course most weeks, and resumed acting in regional theater.
"I feel a lot better and I'm a lot better connected with people," he said. "And my longevity? The most recent test shows I may live to be 76."
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253