Albert Lea embarks on a healthy makeover

Focus group
City leaders meet in a focus group with walkability expert Dan Burden. The community plans to connect Albert Lea's lakes and make the downtown more pedestrian friendly.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

It's day one of the makeover, and city leaders are holding a meeting about how friendly Albert Lea is to pedestrians.

Walkability expert Dan Burden is explaining that sidewalks aren't enough. He says buildings need to be occupied and they need to have windows.

"I'll use one as an example, the pharmacy on the corner that we saw. I assume at one time there were windows in that building. Once those windows go away, people no longer feel secure," Burden said.

Who would have thought that windows in the downtown would make people want to walk? But research shows that amenities like windows make a place look more vital, encouraging people to be more active.

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Just a few months ago Albert Lea hosted the reality TV show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. So it's a town that might be open to these ideas. The town of 18,000 sits on the Iowa border.

"Albert Lea is really a changing community. For many years we were known as a meatpacking town," said Victoria Simonsen, Albert Lea's city manager.

Dan Buettner
Dan Buettner is the best-selling author of "The Blue Zones," a book on longevity. He and a team of people from AARP, the University of Minnesota and Albert Lea will help incorporate small changes into the lives of participants in an attempt to increase their longevity.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Simonsen helped convince Blue Zones leadership to test its city health makeover project in Albert Lea. The city has been looking for ways to redefine itself in light of a new workforce, she says.

"To go from what we lovingly call here, 'Joe lunchbox,' to this white-collar community of professionals that have different expectations. I am seeing an emerging population that is walking more and biking more," said Simonsen.

Nevertheless, 60 percent of Albert Lea's population is overweight and obese, she says.

"I would expect it to be 50 or a little under, so to hear 60 is quite a shock, but I guess sometimes that's what it takes," said Simonsen.

Albert Lea is an average American town, and it's the right size for an experiment like this, according to Blue Zones founder and author Dan Buettner. It's small enough to see an impact, and big enough to build community support.

"This healthy city makeover project will take place in the next 10 months to change the environment," said Buettner. "This is opposed to focus on diet and exercise programs, which never work in the long term, to make the easy option the healthy option."

City leaders will expand bike paths, create walking groups and add bike lanes to city streets. Buettner says his staff will work with individuals.

First they'll use a longevity calculator to determine the life expectancy of the volunteers. Then they'll look closely at aspects of their lives.

"Focus on who you hang out with. We know that if your three best friends are overweight, there is a 50 percent chance that you'll be overweight," said Buettner. "So thinking about who you hang out with, and thinking about how to expand your social network so you hang out with the right people."

One step for the participants is to get more, or new, friends. Other steps are to "de-convenience" their homes and hide the sugar.

"The average American burns fewer than 100 calories a day engaged in exercise. But our experts say they can help set up homes and kitchens so people consume 100 fewer calories a day and actually burn up to 200 calories more a day," said Buettner.

The third step is to find their purpose in life and their passions.

"There's very clear research that shows the connection between purpose, meaning and health outcomes. People who volunteer and have purpose have lower rates of cancer and lower BMIs," said Buettner. "This whole thing -- it's not asking a lot, but it is all research based."

Buettner hopes to get between 2,500 and 5,000 particpants in Albert Lea. Ten months from now those individuals will calculate their longevity again. Buettner expects that within that time people will add two years to their life expectancies.