ALBERT LEA — If you’ve zipped along I-35 through Albert Lea and passed it off as a sleepy little town, you haven’t heard the latest. A pioneering project in this southern Minnesota community of 18,000 people could be putting it on track as one of the hottest pockets of longevity across the globe.
As walkers of all ages this summer have been racking up their daily miles, gardeners have been piling up their fresh vegetables and restaurant-goers tallying the fat and calories being skimmed off printed menus. Participants in a citywide initiative are counting something else, too: the number of years healthy habits could add to their lives.
More than 3,600 (20 percent) of Albert Lea’s residents have taken on lifestyle-changing challenges of the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, spearheaded by Blue Zones research with AARP The Magazine as a partner and sponsored by United Health Foundation.
The project draws its lessons from the Blue Zones, five locales where people live not just longer but better into their 80s, 90s and beyond.
As participants eat and cook healthier, walk farther and more often and become more acquainted with their neighbors, many say the “better” part already has begun. “It’s contagious,” said Barb Westurn about her health-conscious lifestyle, fueled by daily walks with The Jolly Walkers, the oldest group among more than 65 “walking moais” across town. The moais — an Okinawan term meaning social networks — will celebrate Thursday evening in the Freeborn County Fairgrounds Grandstand their completion of 10 continuous weeks of counting their steps toward a stronger, longer life.
Institute is next-phase vision
Project co-creator Dan Buettner, a Minneapolis-based writer and extreme adventurer who fostered discovery of the Blue Zones and wrote the 2008 book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” was in Albert Lea last week talking with townspeople who will chart the project’s second phase. It will shift leadership to the community and be outlined at an Oct. 13 celebration. The project’s initial phase has “far exceeded” expectations, he said, and may have rekindled ways of life — walking, cutting back on conveniences, finding a sense of purpose — that townspeople’s ancestors practiced centuries ago. “People have tapped into an almost instinctual desire to get connected and do the right thing. Who knows but perhaps it helped them to remember what they forgot.”
The surprise is there’s more. Community leaders are talking of building “a Blue Zones institute,” he said, envisioned as a training ground for people around the country — “a place where different town leaders could fly in for a day or days to learn what we did with Blue Zones and bring that back to their communities.” A plot of land where the town’s main street joins the lake has been targeted as a construction site, he said.
That vision is a bold leap in a project that kicked off in mid-May in Albert Lea High School’s auditorium in an event spirited by cheerleaders, a drum corps and all the energy of a big-game pep rally. Albert Lea was chosen as the project site from among five cities invited to apply for its “will and conviction,” Buettner said.
Buettner, 49, a writer and bicyclist, first gained international attention by biking around the world. He became an explorer who later assembled a team of scientists and doctors that helped identify four Blue Zones — in Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and a Seventh-Day Adventist population in Loma Linda, Calif. Buettner has since added a fifth: Ikaria, an island in Greece. He shared their health and longevity secrets in his “Blue Zones” book.
Recipes for a longer life
The longevity secrets — at the heart of the Albert Lea project — boil down to four practices: eating a healthy, plant-based diet; maintaining an active lifestyle; developing a clear sense of purpose, and sustaining strong social networks. All have blossomed since the spring launch in many and often surprising ways:
Garden plots for rent: The city plowed 40 new garden plots to create a total of 70 plots it now rents to townspeople for $20 each, with water supplied for free. New friendships have grown along with the squash and sweet corn, said Victoria Simonsen, Albert Lea’s city manager. “I grew zucchinis next to a guy growing pumpkins,” which her 9- and 10-year-old daughters are keeping an eye on, she said. “A lot of impromptu training occurs.” A farmer’s market, neighborhood picnics and parties encourage sharing gardening tips and produce, too.
Backyard garden competition: Lori and Richard Walthers won the best fruit and vegetable garden category for their garden’s bountifulness and wide variety, ranging from strawberries and raspberries to onions, several squash and pepper varieties, good tomatoes in a bad tomato year and more. A side garden provides a wide array of herbs, including catnip for the family’s cats. The couple’s two teenage children “have been involved in the gardens, too,” their mother said.
Healthy cooking classes: Homemade salsa, anyone? How about veggie ciabatta sandwiches, Asian salmon fillets or grilled pineapple, peach and mango kebabs? Vitality Project classes and Albert Lea supermarkets offer classes — some scheduled at suppertime — in cooking healthier on the grill and in the kitchen. Coming up Sept. 14, courtesy of HyVee supermarket: a pasta salad made with yogurt instead of mayo, and carrot cake with whole wheat — along with healthy makeovers for cheesy potatoes and holiday green-bean casserole.
New menus in the works: More than 20 restaurants signed a pledge to add healthier options. Some companies have asked vending-machine suppliers to add healthier choices. The Vitality Project has encouraged faith communities and businesses to add fruit to the doughnut table and ditch the candy dish at office meetings.
Longevity food stickers: Stickers marked “longevity food” attract shoppers’ attention to healthful foods at HyVee (think whole grains, bran products and orange vegetables such as squash, sweet potatoes and carrots, to name a few).
Bracelets with a message: Some project participants wear blue bracelets marked with the words “Hara hachi bu,” an Okinawan expression meaning “Stop eating when you feel 80 percent full.” It’s one of many project examples that have created “a new connection between people,” said City Manager Victoria Simonsen (yes, she typically wears the blue bangle). The bracelets can be a conversation starter, she said, as can buying, eyeing — or ignoring — the supermarket’s longevity foods, especially while wearing a blue bracelet.
Personal sense of purpose: Townspeople who signed up learned the role of purpose in their lives in seminars led by Twin Citian Richard Leider, a coach and author of books on the subject. By identifying inborn talents, many discovered avenues for sharing them with others, some as volunteers filling needs in the community.
A longevity compass: Participants in the Vitality Project launch took online “longevity compass” tests that estimate individuals’ expected years of healthy living based on their current lifestyle. Many plan to take follow-up tests (try it here) when the project’s first phase wraps up in mid-October.
Walking moais: Because the walking moias emphasize not just health but community-building, participants can count their steps (2,000 steps equal roughly a mile) toward competition only when they walk with at least one team member. Volunteer service is worth extra points. The town’s fleet of more than 65 walking moais turned in their total steps this week as the formal 10-week program ended, leading up to Thursday night’s celebration and announcement of moais with the most steps. Some walking groups originated with the Vitality Project, while others already existed. Many of them, walkers say, will keep on walking.
A paradigm shift
The Jolly Walkers appeared to be hanging onto second place in the competition as numbers drifted in. Not bad for the eight-person team in their 60s, 70s and one age 80. All attend the same church, “so we share a spiritual as well as a friendship connection,” said Barb Westurn. Group member Iva Jeanne Hill named the group, whose members often enjoy her good humor. As they walked last week on a path flanked on one side by one of Albert Lea’s five lakes and a cemetery on the other, Hill proclaimed: “We’re walking here so we won’t be there,” pointing a finger toward the cemetery. Not anytime soon, she trusts.
As the Vitality Project’s first phase ends in mid-October, much of what has gone on in Albert Lea will remain, said Joel Spoonheim, who has learned his way around town as director of Health Initiatives for Blue Zones. Along with that, a new wave the project nurtured will continue. The city’s Walkability Project has filled in miles of gaps in walking paths and sidewalks. Funds are allocated in the 2010 budget to complete sidewalks around the town’s schools. A vegan restaurant with an adjoining food shop has moved in downtown. Faith communities and businesses have spurred talk of adding fruit to the doughnut table at church and in the boardroom. A healthy potluck recipe contest is in the works. And “Good Morning America” plans to keep tabs on Tom and Tim Furland, 15 and 13 respectively, as they adjust after moving the TVs out of their bedrooms.
“The environment still encourages some wrong behaviors,” Spoonheim said. The project’s goal is for people to begin choosing more healthful, purposeful and community-building choices that are being offered to them. “All these things add up. That’s the paradigm shift.”
Kay Harvey writes about aging, demographics, gender and psychology.