ALBERT LEA, Minn. – Hardware store owner and heart attack survivor Leo Aeikens spent most of his life hankering for meat, cheese and ice cream. But an ambitious effort aimed at making his entire southern Minnesota town healthier has Aeikens calling himself a vegan and weighing 25 pounds less than just 10 months ago.
The 69-year-old's radical lifestyle change came as part of the "Vitality Project," an endeavor spearheaded by the retirement group AARP and the United Health Foundation that organizers say has added an average 3.1 years to the lives of Albert Lea residents through improved diet and exercise.
With organizers' help, the city built five years worth of sidewalk and bike trails in just one year to make exercise easier for its 18,000 residents. Restaurants added healthier menus and grocery stores showcased wholesome foods. People snacked on fruits and veggies over and ate less fast food.
Schools stopped celebrating birthdays with sugary treats, and started setting up "walking buses" that allowed kids to walk to and from school together with adult supervision. Employers gave workers time to exercise.
Organizers say the first-of-its kind experiment added an average 3.1 years to the longevity of about 2,300 residents who calculated their lifespans by answering 36 lifestyle questions.
Adventurer and travel writer Dan Buettner hatched the idea and oversaw the project after identifying five areas around the world where people tend to live longer and healthier lives, research he documented in a 2008 book, "The Blue Zones."
The key for Albert Lea was getting the community behind a goal that was not just about weight loss, but also about fostering family relationships, a sense of purpose and healthy living habits, Buettner said.
Bob Furland, manager of the city's two ice rinks, said he and his wife used to grab fast food several times a week while shuttling two teenagers to sports and school activities. Now, they plan ahead for meals and keep fruits and vegetables for snacking. They planted a vegetable garden and take regular evening walks together.
"It's funny, once you cut out the bad stuff, you go back to it and it doesn't taste as good anymore," said Furland, 46, who lost about 15 pounds and added three years to his life expectancy, according to his survey.
AARP, a nonprofit organization for people over age 50, supported the project because its members are want to live longer and better, said Cathy Ventura-Merkel, senior vice president of publications.
United Health Foundation put up $750,000, and AARP an undisclosed additional sum, Ventura-Merkel said. The money paid for consulting and licensing costs, and for experts who worked with residents on things like eating and cooking better, setting up community gardens and walking programs.
Vitality Project backers call it more than a weight-loss effort. But Melissa Nelson, a food and nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota, said the project offers hope to researchers frustrated by persistent obesity.
"A lot of health professionals are buying into the idea that this is a problem we're going to have to tackle in a lot of different ways," Nelson said. "This idea of a community approach is something a lot of people are really getting excited about."
Outside Lakeview Elementary on Tuesday afternoon, adults shepherded a large group of children headed home in a "walking bus." Judy Dilling, 60, was escorting her two grandchildren the mile (1.6 kilometer) to their house.
"It's invigorating," she said.
The organized portion of the program drew to a close with a community celebration Tuesday night, but residents were confident they'd formed lasting habits.
"I always thought being meatless would be a horrible way to live," Aeikens said. "But there are oodles of things that are tasty and good, vegetables and fruits that really make up a good diet. I wouldn't go back."