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The AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project

Creating America's Healthiest Hometown

We set out to add 10,000 years of healthy life to a typical American city

Albert Lea, Minnesota, (population: 18,000) may seem like a quaint midwestern city — crab apple trees in bloom, thunderclouds over the lakes. But residents here have embarked on a first-of-its-kind, life-extending mission. On May 14 the town launched The AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, sponsored by United Health Foundation. This project, spearheaded by AARP The Magazine, makes Albert Lea ground zero for the practical application of longevity research, as the town changes the way residents eat, exercise, work, and play. Spend a few days here and you may see townsfolk building new walking paths, planting community gardens, adding healthy choices to restaurant menus (heads up: If you want bread, you may have to ask for it) and creating "walking school buses," in which neighbors, parents, and retiree volunteers walk kids to school instead of driving them. The payoff? Healthier eating, more exercise, stronger friendships, more fun. Who said living longer and healthier was hard work?

Okay, a town makeover does take a lot of planning — and a team of experts leading the way. That's where Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner, cocreator of the project, comes in. Buettner and his team of scientists have identified regions around the world, dubbed Blue Zones, where people live uncommonly long, healthy lives. (Read about Dan's expedition to the newest Blue Zone — Ikaría, Greece.)
People in Blue Zones share four main traits: They eat a healthy plant-based diet, live an active lifestyle, have a clear sense of purpose and develop strong social networks. The goal is to bring these principles to Albert Lea.
The day before the launch, Buettner and his team visited Lou-Rich, a local manufacturing company. They found vending machines stuffed with Doritos and Hostess Fruit Pies and lunch menus offering smothered beef-and-cheese burritos and super chili cheese dogs. Employees also indulged in free sweets on "Donut Wednesdays." Among the Blue Zone team's initial suggestions: Add a fruit option along with the doughnuts, include healthy choices in the vending machines, change birthday parties from weekly to monthly and improve the lunch menus. Buettner asked Lou-Rich CEO Mike Larson, "If our team makes recommendations, would you implement them if they didn't cost a lot?"
"Absolutely," said Larson. "We are a pretty can-do company."
The launch event itself, at Albert Lea High School, had all the excitement of a state fair. Close to 1,300 people crowded into the school's auditorium and gymnasium as cheerleaders and a drum corps kept spirits high. Booths invited folks to sign up for walking clubs, while local librarians encouraged residents to sign the Vitality Pledge and take the Blue Zones "longevity compass" (a test that determines how many years of healthy living you can expect based on your current lifestyle). All participants will take the compass again October 15, when the project concludes.
If we can add two years of life to 5,000 participants, we will have added 10,000 years of life to Albert Lea. If we fall short and add only 5,000 years — well, we can live with that.
What motivates people to participate? Vergie Asper, 63, wants to "get reacquainted with friends and neighbors" after teaching outside the city for 21 years. Alice "Pot Roast" Petersen, 71, gets all the socializing she needs as part of a bowling league that calls itself the Hot Dishes. But a ruptured aortic aneurysm last February scared her into being more proactive about her health.
And guess what? Albert Lea's young people are digging the project as much as their parents: Tom and Tim Furland (15 and 13, respectively) are ready to spend less time with Big Macs and Xboxes and more with strawberries and in-line skating. The benefits more than justify any sacrifices. Says dad Bob, 46, who coaches his sons' soccer teams: "The kids and I were saying how nice it'd be if one day I could coach their kids, too."

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