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Albert Lea shows how walking and other healthy habits can rejuvenate a rural community

What Albert Lea has accomplished over the past five years offers both lessons and inspiration for smaller towns and cities across the country.

In Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town of 18,000, people are working to prove that healthy lifestyles like walking and good nutrition are not just big-city things.
Courtesy of Blue Zones

ALBERT LEA — 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, Minnesota, 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.

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Walking is more common in small towns than people tend to think. In towns of 10,000 to 50,000 people, 8.5 percent of all trips are made on foot, second only to “urban core” communities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey. In smaller towns of 2,500 to 10,000, walking accounts for 7.2 percent of trips — higher than in most suburban communities.

Effort began in 2009

Here, many people embraced healthier lifestyles in 2009 when they adopted a community-wide approach to wellness laid out in “Blues Zones,” a best-selling book by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner that examines places around the world where people live longest and healthiest.

What Albert Lea has accomplished over the past five years offers both lessons and 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 such 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, which was funded in part by AARP.

It appears to have worked.

Walking is up, smoking and weight are down

Walking has increased 70 percent in the last five years, according to pedestrian counts conducted by the National Vitality Center, a local initiative working on the community health campaign. Smoking has also 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 going strong five years later. Two-thirds of locally operated restaurants and one large supermarket now offer new options for healthy eating. 

Even on a gray, chilly weekday afternoon, the new 5-mile trail around Fountain Lake draws more walkers and bikers than you’d expect in a town set among soybean fields of southern Minnesota. The downtown, which borders the park, is filled with people on foot heading between the bank, the library, the kitchen store, clothing stores, churches, schools, restaurants, and — in a classic Minnesota touch — the Sportman’s Tavern, which advertises “cabbage roll hotdish” 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.

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City Council member Al Brooks, who now walks 2½ miles every day, credits the campaign with big improvements in his own 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.”

After being launched in Albert Lea, the Blue Zones idea has now been taken to Fort Worth, Texas; Naples, Florida; Southern California; and across the states of Iowa and Hawaii. 

Paying off in other ways

Albert Lea’s health gains are paying off in many ways. “Good Morning America” broadcast live from the shores of Fountain Lake to tell the country what was happening here — part of a wave of media attention that is valuable to the town’s future prospects, says City Manager Chad Adams. “And the city’s health insurance premiums will not increase in 2015, instead of the double digit increases of the past few years,” Adams adds — a windfall for taxpayers, which he attributes to the community’s awareness of wellness, physical activity and the health benefits of strong social connections.

Adams stresses that a lively, walkable community is key to attracting businesses as well as the families and young people that Albert Lea needs to thrive in decades to come. Briana Czer, a young bank manager who moved here a year ago, thinks this strategy is working. “I like how walkable Albert Lea is. When people walk more, they socialize more. That helps connect everyone and makes me feel more part of the community, ” she says.

So how exactly did Albert Lea get more people back on their feet walking, especially in a rural region where driving is deeply embedded in the fabric of everyday life?

Courtesy of Blue Zones
Albert Lea’s health gains are paying off in many ways.

How they did it

It was a combination of: 1) creating a public education campaign about the health advantages of physical activity; 2) organizing people into informal social groups to walk or bike regularly; and 3) making the city’s streets and parks more safe and appealing for pedestrians. Here are some of the accomplishments:

  • A community-wide focus on physical activity — enlisting civic organizations, businesses, schools, public agencies, the media and citizens — offered continual reinforcement for people to get out and walk. “It has reconnected our community in a way that I never thought possible,” notes Randy Kehr, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce (and husband of Ellen Kehr). “Sociability is as important to health as exercise and eating.”
  • Walking groups, which serve as an incentive to get off the sofa, even when you feel lazy or it’s freezing outside. This makes physical activity a social occasion to look forward to.  In Albert Lea, walking groups are generally four to 10 people committed to walking together three to seven times a week.
  • Downtown was made more walkable by widening sidewalks, eliminating unnecessary traffic lanes, restoring diagonal parking, replacing some stoplights with stop signs, and “bumping out” sidewalks into the intersection, which shortens the crossing distance on busy streets. 
  • Sidewalks were added to 6½ miles of city streets in strategic locations near schools, senior centers and businesses.
  • A bikeway along Front Street now connects a state park to downtown and a commercial street on the city’s west side.  Bicycling has risen 74 percent on the street, according to the National Vitality Project’s count.

‘I am proud of you’

“Small towns can reinvent themselves as places faster than big towns,” explained Dan Burden — one of America’s foremost authorities on walkable communities — to a roomful of city, county and state officials at Albert Lea’s City Hall working on further improvements for the town.

A former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the state of Florida, Burden has brought ideas for walkability and livability to more than 3,500 North American communities in the past 18 years. He helped Albert Lea citizens map out their original healthy cities strategies in 2009 as part of the Blue Zones team, and has now returned for the new phase of work as the organization’s director of innovation.

“When I first came into Albert Lea, I’ll be honest, it looked like the downtown was closed,” he told local officials. “There were businesses, but there was no life in the streets.  That’s changed now. Albert Lea, I am proud of you.”