When her weight crept past 300 pounds last year, Denise Leitz, of New Ulm, Minn., knew something had to change.
Her clothes didn't fit. Airplane seat belts weren't long enough to reach around her waist -- and she was always in pain.
"I would drop something on the floor and have to crawl to it," Leitz said. "I mean it was horrible to be like that."
Leitz, 56, decided to change her life by participating in the Heart of New Ulm Project, a 10-year effort that aims to eliminate heart attacks in the community.
After six years, the town has yet to hit that lofty goal, and may never do so. But it has made enough progress in improving health among its citizens to win national recognition. In July, the project won a 2014 Nova Award for its work from the American Hospital Association, which the community will celebrate on Tuesday.
New Ulm's communal goal has paid big dividends for Leitz, who after one year is 60 pounds lighter and pain-free. She also has seen her cholesterol levels drop to a normal range after years of being dangerously high.
Leitz said she did it by ditching cookies and processed foods and eating more fruits and vegetables.
She also exercises on an elliptical machine in her bedroom and a mini trampoline in her living room. On most days, she rides her bicycle for an hour and a half.
"Exercise has moved up my list like you can't even imagine," Leitz said. "I basically feel like I've never exercised before and now it's like it's as important to me as brushing my teeth every day. I just have to, it just makes me feel so much better."
Leitz's transformation is remarkable, and she credits the Heart of New Ulm Project entirely for her success. Launched in 2009, the project is a collaboration among Allina Health, the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and the community of New Ulm.
The program makes sure that Leitz and others are never alone in their quest to get healthy. Three times a day she receives text messages with healthy meal ideas and exercise tips. She also finds healthy recipes regularly in her local newspaper and on a weekly cable access program called "What's Cooking New Ulm."
Leitz said when she eats out, it's not as hard as it used to be to find healthy meals. Nineteen New Ulm restaurants have added healthier options to their menus or switched to using healthier ingredients since the Heart of New Ulm project started.
Her neighbors also help, with old fashioned peer pressure.
"People care and they notice," she said. "And sometimes it's a little scary because they look at you like, 'Are you going to eat that?' And it's like, 'Oh you're right. I shouldn't be having this anyway.'"
Since the project began the rate of heart attacks in New Ulm has declined more than the statewide average and so have cardiovascular deaths, according to early data from the New Ulm Medical Center.
Dr. Roger Lindholm, a family medicine physician at the center, says although it's still too early to tell whether the trend is meaningful, he's glad for any help he can get. While patients may tune him out, he said it's harder to tune out a movement that has taken over your town.
"They're getting it from their neighbors and they're talking about it when they go for a walk or they're talking about it at coffee," he said.
The remarkable level of community support for the project has been one of its greatest successes, said Jackie Boucher, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.
Boucher, who directed the Heart of New Ulm Project during its first five years, said 94 percent of the people in New Ulm were aware of it during its first year and most of them participated in at least one activity.
"Once you get that great engagement there's always that 'What's next? What's next?'" she said. "And you know the challenge is trying to be innovative and obviously stay within the budget that you have."
A bigger challenge will be making sure the work that has been done in New Ulm lives on. Boucher said the project is looking now at ways to help New Ulm residents sustain their healthier lifestyles once the project wraps up in a few years.
The project does many things right, said Jim Peacock, an epidemiologist in the Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Unit at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Peacock said communities with less access to health insurance, transportation or places where they can exercise or get healthy foods may have trouble replicating the Heart of New Ulm's success.
However, he said New Ulm is an ideal place to test the potential of a community-based wellness project because it has one primary medical provider that can use its electronic medical records to measure which interventions are making people healthier.
"We've learned a lot of things from New Ulm, but it does leave us with some questions about how do we most appropriately address health equity in very diverse communities like in the metro," he said.
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