The Heart of New Ulm Project proved that a town known for beer and brats could improve its cardiovascular fitness if residents received guidance and support to eat better, exercise more and make better use of medical care.

Blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels have all improved since 2009 in a target population of New Ulm adults, according to study results released this May. And while the rest of the nation got heavier, obesity levels at least didn’t worsen in New Ulm.

Now, as the Heart of New Ulm nears the end of its 10-year mission, a question looms: when the project’s $1 million per year in investment and attention goes away, will the central Minnesota community keep its healthy habits?

“The last thing we want is 10 years of progress to slowly go away,” said Rebecca Lindberg, director of population health at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, which is leading the New Ulm project in partnership with Allina Health and its New Ulm Medical Center.

That concern has New Ulm project leaders shifting their focus in the final two years — away from organizing new 5K runs and weight loss challenges, events that motivated the community until now, and toward civic policies and practices that will prevent any backsliding.

City approval of a new long-term streets policy that prioritizes walking and biking was a big step, Lindberg said. Project leaders are now using medical records to identify pockets in the community where residents are in poorer health so city officials can consider actual health data when deciding where to build or enhance parks and trails.

Convincing restaurants and food providers that healthier options pay off also is important. New Ulm sports boosters were reluctant to tinker with the pizza and other favorites they sold to raise money at high school athletic events.

Then they tried selling pizza slices that were smaller and had less cheese and offering alternatives such as clementines and other fruit and discovered a payoff, Lindberg said. “By offering more choices for people, they are actually selling more items, and they aren’t seeing their profits going down.”

New Ulm was picked partly because it is a one-horse town when it comes to health care. Most residents use Allina doctors and the New Ulm Medical Center, making it easier to track their progress through Allina’s electronic medical record-keeping system.

Skeptics wondered if New Ulm’s progress was merely a sign of the times statewide, and whether other cities were achieving the same results without the additional investment. To address that, project leaders have launched a comparison study of New Ulm with a similar community. Results are expected early next year.

Lindberg believes that New Ulm has adopted healthy habits that will endure after the project. Even the indulgent Octoberfest in town now has its own popular 5K run.

“Its about having choices available at those festivities for people that are looking for alternatives,” Lindberg said. “So when you’re serving those brats, is there an opportunity to have fruits and vegetables and other choices available?”