The Blue Zone Wellness Project: Can Iowa Do It? | How Can We Live Longer and Healthier Lives?

Does work leave you stressed? If you want to live a long life don’t let your career overwhelm your life.

Sixty million. This is the number of Americans who have pre-diabetes, the early-stage warnings of diabetes.

Three hundred seventy-five. That’s the number of people with diabetes every day who are treated for complications, including amputation or blindness.

Three hundred percent. That’s the expected surge in health care costs for diabetes over the next 25 years, even with no increase in obesity (which is also projected to rise). According to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, over the next 25 years, the number of Americans with diabetes will nearly double, from 24 million to 44.1 million in 2034, without figuring in an increase in  obesity.

Not to single out diabetes victims—it’s just one example of what ails America: Runaway health care costs are putting the nation on a fast track to bankruptcy. Annual U.S. health care expenditures are projected to almost double over the next ten years, from the $2.5 trillion estimated for 2009 to $4.5 trillion.

The runaway costs in large part are caused by mounting expenses from chronic diseases like heart disease and some cancers that are, to a large extent, preventable.

The Community Health Make-Over: Lessons from Albert Lea

When it comes to the prevention, it’s a tune we’ve heard often: If you want to live a longer life and add life to your years, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and find ways to cope with stress. In spite of these oft-advocated recipes for health, however, many of us are still sitting on the couch, eating our microwave dinners, watching too much TV, and popping pills for high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

We all know that adopting healthy lifestyle habits is good for us, yet we find it hard, if not impossible, to do. Why?

The answer is simple: we are, to a degree, products of our environment. Experts have shown that our modern lifestyle makes it hard for people to eat properly or follow healthy habits. It’s not easy to simply “snap out of” an unhealthy lifestyle when our efforts are thwarted on all sides: by marketing messages encouraging poor habits, by work pressure, and by the sheer difficulty of just figuring out where to start. Even when we are motivated to change, it’s difficult. Given the choice between a carrot and a piece of carrot cake, what are we going to take? Hands down—the cake.

Enter a new concept: the community make-over. Residents of Albert Lea, Minnesota, have lighted upon a solution: creating a community environment that promotes good habits. The 18,000-resident town was chosen as a site for the world’s first Blue Zones Vitality Project. The intent was to undertake a health makeover for the town’s residents: getting residents more active, encouraging better eating habits, and bringing people together around wellness activities.

What Are the Blue Zones?

The wellness activities of the Albert Lea Vitality Project were modeled around the Blue Zones concept, a notion introduced by former National Geographic writer Dan Buettner in his book of the same name. The Blue Zones are pockets of civilization where people reach the age of 100 ten times more frequently than they do in the U.S. and other parts of the industrialized world.

The people who live in the Blue Zones not only live longer, they also enjoy long, healthy lives, in which heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer are extremely rare. Buettner and his fellow researchers travelled to these communities and studied them extensively to see what, if anything, they might have in common.

The Blue Zones communities are in very diverse parts of the world: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, CA (the head seat of the Seventh Day Adventists). Despite the wide differences in culture, however, Buettner found that the communities had many lifestyle features in common. They ate predominantly plant-based diets, high in whole grains and quality protein; they got regular exercise; they had low-stress day-to-day routines; they nurtured a strong sense of community; and so on.

To find out how long you can expect to live with your current lifestyle habits, see the handy little Vitality Compass from the Blue Zones project at

Adding Years to Life

The concept behind the Albert Lea Vitality Project was simple: If the Blue Zone lifestyle characteristics help people live longer, healthier, and more meaningful lives, other communities should be able to increase the health and life span of inhabitants as well, simply by adopting the same lifestyle habits.

For this purpose, leaders in Albert Lea  made residents more aware of the town’s many bike and walking paths, and created events that encouraged people to use them. Nutrition expert Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, taught simple tricks for healthier eating. A dietary expert worked with grocery stores to label “longevity foods” and organized with schools to change their menus and the eating habits of students.

As part of the community make-over, the town also created community gardens and held workshops to educate people on eating healthy diets. Happily, these health-oriented events brought people together in community activities.

The Albert Lea project began in May 2009. By October that year, after just five months, a total of 3,464 residents had participated in the project. The project resulted in an average weight loss of two pounds for every Albert Lea resident, an increase in average life expectancy of 3.1 years, and best of all, 100 percent of participants reported feeling better, both physically and emotionally.

Social worker Brian Mattson, 38, increased his life expectancy by several years by cutting back on junk food, watching less TV, and getting out more. Not only did the pounds come off, he also discovered that he felt less isolated and depressed. Other people lost weight, found new friends, or got the courage to pursue their dreams and passions.

A Blue Zone for Your Town?

The idea behind the Albert Lea Project is a simple one: follow the lessons from  communities where people live the longest and create communities that support health and wellness. How about setting up one in your town?

In Fairfield, the Jefferson County Wellness Coalition, spearheaded by Ken Daley, has a plan in the works to turn the town into a Wellness Community. If you are interested in learning more or participating, please contact Ken Daley at         

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