By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
With the funding in place, Buettner and his team had to choose a city. The University of Minnesota helped Spoonheim come up with the criteria: It had to be a statistically normal town that fit the national average for health indicators like cardiovascular disease and obesity, it had to be a freestanding town of 10,000 to 20,000, and it had to be within driving distance of the Twin Cities. Fifteen Minnesota cities met the criteria. Once Spoonheim ruled out college towns, 10 cities were left in the running.
Spoonheim called each of the towns and pitched the idea: Did they want to be America's first pre-fab Blue Zone city? Spoonheim gave applications to the three most enthusiastic. Then it was down to which city had the strongest commitment to the project.
On Christmas Eve, 2008, Spoonheim made a phone call. Buettner and his team had decided where to create America's first intentional Blue Zone: In Albert Lea, a picturesque community of about 18,000 souls about an hour and a half south of Minneapolis.
In January 2009, Dan Burden, a Florida native bundled in four layers under his winter coat, stepped out of a bus alongside a snow bank edging a road just outside of downtown Albert Lea. The temperature was -53 degrees. As a group of city officials and Buettner's team looked on, shivering, Burden stamped his feet for warmth and pointed at the ground. This was a great place for a sidewalk, he explained, the hot steam of his breath vanishing rapidly into the frigid air.
Burden was the first of four expert consultants called on to make over the town. By the end of his two-day visit, the city was shuffling its budgets to find money for a walking path around Fountain Lake, the town's central jewel.
As winter gave way to spring, Buettner's team launched several initiatives. They divided the Blue Zone's nine life lessons into four categories—move naturally, eat wisely, right outlook, and connect—and came up with ways for the town to adopt the changes with relative ease. Lytle worked with the school districts to revise their nutritional programs. Spoonheim assisted locally owned grocery stores in creating signs to identify healthy foods and recruited restaurants to make changes to menus.
On May 14, the auditorium of the high school gym filled with the kick-off celebration of the Vitality Project in Albert Lea. The high school cheer squad and drum line welcomed residents into the gym. A cadre of 150 volunteers clad in blue T-shirts handed out welcome packets. Dr. Brian Wansink, head of the Food Lab at Cornell University, introduced the Blue Zone concept and ways to get involved. Then residents visited booths and signed pledges.
Throughout the summer, Albert Lea put those pledges into practice. Groups of neighbors joined walking moais, meeting regularly to walk and talk. Albert Lea residents took cooking classes, planted food in community gardens, and learned how to find their purpose through a series of workshops.
By October, close to 20 percent of Albert Lea's residents had participated in the Vitality Project. An online questionnaire helped 786 residents determine their before-and-after life expectancies, which rose by an average of 2.9 years. City workers and their families lowered their health care costs by 32 percent in 10 months.
For Brian Mattson, a 39-year-old social worker, the Vitality Project launched a new way of life. Overweight by 150 pounds, Mattson typically spent evenings alone in his home, watching television and eating entire bags of Doritos. When his mom dragged him to the Vitality Project kick-off, he committed to walking with his neighbors.
"Pretty soon you start doing it regularly," Mattson says, adding that more changes then seemed possible. "It became: 'I'll eat more fruits and vegetables.'"
Now Mattson has lost 30 pounds, and he's starting to work on his social connections. Recently, he played a small part in a local theater production—something he used to love but had let fall by the wayside for nearly a decade.
Though Buettner recommends making no more than three changes at a time, the Furland family—Sue and Bob, both in their 40s, and their sons Tom, 16, and Tim, 14—decided to adopt all the changes. They planted a garden in their backyard, joined walking moais, renewed their commitments to church and volunteer activities, and consumed less meat and more grains and nuts.
"People just felt together on something," Bob says of the community response. "Everybody that was involved seemed happier when you'd go to the events."
DAN BUETTNER STRIDES into Caribou Coffee in Uptown, dressed in yuppie yogi gear: black T-shirt emblazoned with a neon Buddha, zip-up fleece bearing the insignia of lululemon athletica—the brand favored by wealthy women who do Bikram. Despite his book's admonition to show up early, Buettner arrives late—he couldn't find a parking spot.
The coffee shop is Buettner's frequent morning office, where he sweats away over the keyboard on the manuscript for his forthcoming book on happiness. Here, the coffee barista greets him by name. He orders the new hot cocoa, the one with real, rich chocolate pieces melted into milk. It's not exactly on the Blue Zones meal plan, but Buettner likes to try new things.