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The Fitness Factor

The Minnesota Miracle

The extraordinary story of how folks in this small town got motivated, got moving, made new friends, and added years to their lives.

group of women walking

— Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

"I Feel So Strong Now"

Albert Lea is a quintessential green-tree midwestern city, but Moraa Knoll found it less than idyllic. Fifty-two years old and a Kenyan by birth, she moved to Albert Lea in 2003 and struggled to connect with coworkers and neighbors. "I felt like people in America put fences around their lives," she says. "I often felt misunderstood."

Her health suffered. She gained weight, and she and her husband, Michael, developed diabetes. "I used to feel like I'd collapse when I had to climb stairs," she says.

When the Knolls heard about the Vitality Project, they thought it would be a good way to improve their health, beginning with diet. One essential strategy is to reduce portion sizes gradually, and to make those smaller meals more nutritious. At first Moraa found herself craving junk food. "I was hungry from the smaller portions, and sometimes I really wanted a pizza or a cookie or to go to a fast-food restaurant," she admits. "But I also wanted to change my health. I got rid of all the junk food and sweets in the house. What I kept around was fruit, so when I was hungry, I learned to reach for an apple or a banana."

Michael stayed active thanks to a side job delivering newspapers, but Moraa knew she needed to move more, so she joined two walking moais in her neighborhood. In Okinawa, a Blue Zone where average life expectancy is 82, moai is the word for a group of people who support one another for life. In Albert Lea roughly 600 citizens joined walking moais during the project, trading TVs and computers for group exercise. Biking and community gardening became popular as well.

The groups have enriched Moraa's life. "Those women reached out to me right away," she says. "We began talking as we walked, and soon we were friends. That experience has made me open up to other people."

Moraa now does occasional volunteer work, such as walking dogs for the Humane Society, with a moai friend, and she and Michael have dramatically improved their health: Moraa has lost about 30 pounds, Michael's waist size has dropped from 38 to 32, and their diabetes symptoms have virtually disappeared. "I'm almost nondiabetic now," Moraa reports.

Eager to spread the Vitality Project's positive results, Moraa's church has formed a group to discuss their accomplishments and encourage others to trade French fries for fruit. "But whenever we meet," she says, "we talk most about how people are connecting more because of the Vitality Project. It's made me feel better about Albert Lea—and America."

"Eating This Way Has Helped Us Save Money"

Curly fries and curling irons were once a daily mix for 47-year-old Jackie Abrego. The owner of a hair salon, Jackie would frequently eat fast food with her employees. Yes, she and her husband, John, 50, have always been active—they bike and walk and chase their four young grandkids—but the Vitality Project, John says, "has really made us conscious of eating healthy." Like Moraa, they've cut out junk food and fast food. "It was hard for me to give that up at first," Jackie admits. "But I've always heard it takes 21 days to change a habit, and we were committed. We knew we had to continuously work the program, or we'd fall back into our old ways."

Giving up fast food forced the couple to do more advance snack planning. Every Sunday night Jackie and John cut up vegetables and fruit together for the week. "It's become a kind of ritual we enjoy," John notes. "Besides making us feel healthier, eating this way has actually saved us money: we pack good, healthful lunches for ourselves."

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