For years, Edina Mayor Jim Hovland and his counterparts in Bloomington and Richfield have been building bike lanes, sidewalks and trails and talking about healthy living.

But that doesn't mean people have been listening.

The desire to take the topic beyond "blah, blah, blah" prompted the mayors to ask Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota to join them in a pilot effort that they hope will become a national model. The 18-month, public-private partnership to boost healthy living was kicked off Tuesday with the three mayors circling Normandale Lake in Bloomington behind the dancing actor featured in Blue Cross' "do-groove" commercials.

"We know people are trying to improve their health but are struggling with this," said Blue Cross' chief prevention officer, Dr. Marc Manley, acknowledging that the goal is ambitious. "We know communities can make it easier. ... We hope to do in 18 months what normally takes many years to achieve."

Hovland said the cities needed Blue Cross' expertise to make the leap from such city enhancements as new trails and bike paths to genuinely changing residents' lifestyles. All the harping about healthy living has a sameness that "dulls the senses," he admitted.

"We need to get some traction with the general community," he said. "We didn't want to have it be like people taking 12 weeks to try to lose holiday weight. We wanted sustainability."

Manley said Blue Cross will provide resources and expertise as the cities have community discussions about barriers to eating healthfully and incorporating exercise into daily life. Businesses, faith groups and schools as well as government will be involved with discussions that Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel said may be conducted through social media or other nontraditional means.

"We have lots of stuff going on, but we need to communicate more with each other," she said. "We have walking and biking clubs, but a lot of them are at the senior level. How do we get families to put their kids in strollers and go for weekly walks together?

"Once that kind of thing starts, it will keep going."

The cities and Blue Cross met with community leaders Tuesday morning in Edina to let people know about the project. Manley said goals could include how to make it safe for kids to walk or bike to school, getting employers to offer healthier food options in their cafeterias, and sensible, safe street designs that accommodate walkers and bikers as well as cars and trucks.

"We believe we can push hard on this and get things done if we all move faster," Manley said.

While each city will have its own discussions and goals, Richfield's Goettel said she hopes they can learn from one another. Earlier this year, for example, the Edina Fire Department's Emergency Medical Services was ranked No. 1 among 40 communities in 25 states in cardiac-arrest survival. Hovland wondered whether his city could make a similar effort to increase stroke survival rates, while Goettel said perhaps her city could learn something from what Edina is doing with cardiac cases.

Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead could not be reached for comment, but said in a statement that he hoped the new partnership would involve more residents to make changes more quickly.

Manley conceded that success may be difficult to gauge at the end of 18 months.

"But when you make it easier to move around by foot and by bike, and look at usage, those will be markers of success," he said. "Those changes last for generations."

Hovland said they won't know unless they try.

"If you don't investigate or try to do it, it's not going to happen," he said. "If it works, if we can figure out how to make it catch fire at the grass-roots level, maybe it can spread to other towns."

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Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380