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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

The hair salon has also said goodbye to candy. "We've got a tray of fresh veggies out instead," says Jackie. "One of the clients even brought us an enormous zucchini, and I made lots of zucchini bread and muffins from it and sent some to school with my niece as a snack." Now that the schools have eliminated junk food, "the kids have really gotten onboard with this," John says. "Even our oldest grandson—he's six—asks for carrot sticks and broccoli to snack on when he visits us. And what he eats, the younger grandkids will copy."

"I Used To Eat A Whole Lot of Cheesy Puffs…"

For Jen and Chris Chalmers, the Vitality Project has reinforced the good things they were already doing—"and helped us to do more," says Chris. The Chalmers—he's 43, she's 38—have three boys under ten, so they're busy people, but Chris still volunteered to be a local cochair of the Vitality Project. Hoping to bring more movement into their lives, the Chalmers are biking to church on Sundays with their kids.

"It was fun for all of us and a great way to get our five-year-old to settle down for the service," Chris says. "We're also involved in the walking school bus in our neighborhood. It's nice to see that gathering of different generations every morning, sometimes as many as 30 or 40 kids and the adults who are going to accompany them—grandparents, moms pushing strollers, and other older people in the neighborhood.

"Another thing we love is the sense of community at the weekly farmers' market—we bike there with the kids, too. Since the project began, it's been packed. More people are buying local produce instead of stuff that's come from 1,500 miles away."

Chris's ten-year-old son, Sam, like all kids, picks up on what his family and his community are doing. "I've been thinking about what I'm eating," he says. "I used to eat a whole lot of cheesy puffs. Now I know they're not good for me, so I cut them out.

"I've met a lot more people around town at all of these Vitality Project events," he adds. "They talk about how in little towns everyone knows each other, but that wasn't really true for me before. Now it is."

"Isn't It Wonderful about Brian?"

Brian Mattson, the social worker who was stunned to learn about his limited life expectancy, got involved in the Vitality Project for one reason: his mother. Jan Mattson is 66, fit, and an ambassador for the project. And she was worried about her son. "She badgered me into going to the Vitality Project start-up," Brian says. "But when I listened to what they were saying, I thought, 'Okay, these are real simple changes, so why not try?' "

He began by eating more fruits and vegetables. Then he joined a walking moai in his neighborhood and got a pedometer to measure the number of steps he took in a day.

"When I first began, I felt like, 'My God, I've walked 6,000 steps and I think I'm gonna die.' " But Brian persevered. He began to feel better and became friends with the people in his moai, particularly 53-year-old Kevin Boyer.

"Sometimes when I'm out walking with Brian, I'll say, 'I'm this close to ordering a pizza,' " Kevin says, "and Brian'll say, 'I'm gonna go home and make stir-fry.' Hearing that keeps me on the rails. I used to have a pizza every week, and I haven't had one in months. I'm just eating a lot less. At first that was hard to manage, but I started using smaller bowls and plates, like the Vitality Project tells you to do, and it's helped me control my portions. I've even given up putting sugar on my cereal. I didn't know you could eat it without sugar," he laughs.

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