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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.

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— Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Fifty-two. That was Brian Mattson's life expectancy. Okay, he knew he was overweight and out of shape. But 52? He was already 38. "I'm a social worker, and my job is tough," he says. "Most nights I'd come home and watch TV and eat junk food. I was pretty isolated." He was also, he admits, depressed.

Brian learned his projected life span after using an online tool called the Vitality Compass, which calculates life expectancy based on diet, exercise, and other key indicators. And he did so on the noteworthy night of May 14, 2009—an evening that helped transform not only Brian Mattson's life but the lives of nearly everyone in Albert Lea, Minnesota, his picturesque hometown. Amid a pep-rally-like atmosphere in a high-school auditorium, the 18,000-resident community kicked off the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, sponsored by the United Health Foundation, a radical yet fun-to-follow program to help people eat better, become more active, connect with one another, and find a greater sense of purpose.

These four basic behaviors lie at the heart of improved health and longevity, something I learned from traveling to areas I call Blue Zones: unique regions where people have the world's longest life spans. The mission of the Vitality Project was to add healthy years to an entire town by weaving the Blue Zones principles into every aspect of the community—restaurants, businesses, schools, homes, and everyday lives.

With buy-in from the town's leadership, the transformation was remarkable. Dan Burden—a transportation expert who has helped more than 2,500 communities become more bike- and pedestrian-friendly—created plans to persuade residents to leave their cars at home. This included building a sidewalk loop around Fountain Lake, the town's stunning centerpiece. Nutrition and food-psychology expert Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, went into Albert Lea's homes and restaurants to explain some simple tricks for healthier eating, such as using ten-inch plates and putting junk food on hard-to-reach shelves. Dietary expert Leslie Lytle, Ph.D., R.D., worked with grocery stores to label "longevity foods," and with schools to change their menus—and the eating habits of students. Richard Leider, author of The Power of Purpose, and his colleague Barbara Hoese led seminars that encouraged participants to pursue their talents and passions.

The ultimate goal: for the people of Albert Lea to adopt these healthy habits so naturally, so painlessly, they wouldn't even realize how radically they were changing their lives. How well did it work? By the time the Vitality Project ended in October 2009 a total of 3,464 residents of all ages had participated. The life expectancy of the 786 residents who took the Vitality Compass before and after rose by an average of 2.9 years, and all say they feel healthier—physically and emotionally. Two-thirds of locally owned restaurants added life-extending foods to their menus, from berries to broccoli, and 35 businesses pledged to make their workplaces healthier by offering more nutritious catering menus and vending machine choices, and substituting fruit for doughnuts. Residents participated in 15 Vitality Project initiatives, says city manager Victoria Simonsen, from walking groups—including "walking school buses," where parents and grandparents stroll with children to school—to healthy cooking classes. Each is expected to continue.

But more impressive than the numbers are the moving, motivating stories of the people who participated—the energetic folks who revitalized their bodies, their spirits, their lives, and their town.

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