Last night I read a great article in the February 15 edition of Newsweek Magazine. Titled “Crimes of the Heart,” and co-written by Walter C. Willet and Anne Underwood, it’s main focus is how our society currently favors an unhealthy lifestyle and how we can learn from the research of Dan Buettner (The Blue Zone) and follow the lead of Albert Lea, Minnesota. Underwood, a regular contributor to Newsweek and Willet, a physician and chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, explain how one town became the first Americans to sign on to the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project.
Buettner’s goal, when writing his book and detailing the health habits of the world’s longest-living people, was to bring the same benefits to middle America, but not by forcing them to diet and exercise. Instead, he believed changes in every day environments would naturally encourage healthier lifestyles. To that end, the city of Albert Lea, got a town-wide makeover. They laid new sidewalks linking residential areas with schools and shopping centers. A recreational path was built around a lake and new plots were dug for community gardens. Schools banned eating in the hallways which reduced the opportunities for students to eat junk food and they stopped selling candy for fundraisers. Restaurants made some healthy changes to their menus and residents agreed to make small changes to their own homes such as ridding their kitchens of their largest dinner plates, to discourage over-sized portions. Volunteers formed walking “school-buses” to escort children to school each day, by foot!
The results were quite impressive! After 6 months, participants lost an average of 2.6 pounds and boosted their estimated life expectancy by over 3 years. More impressively, health-care claims for city and school employees fell for the first time in a decade–32% in 10 months!
In 2006, cardiovascular disease cost $403 billion in medical bills! By 2025 this number is predicted to go up as much as 54%. Creative government programs, such as the one in Albert Lea, could help offset those numbers and help our hearts, too.
The town of Alberta Lea has a population of only 18,000 residents. Buettner’s goal this year, is to scale up the Blue Zone Vitality Project to a city with a population over 100,000, hence improving the hearts and lives of a much larger group of Americans. I hope my government officials here in Coral Springs, Florida are reading this…or Newsweek. As one urban-planning expert who advocates the “road diet” in which towns eliminate a lane or two of traffic and substitute sidewalks, “when roads slim down, so do people.”
More tomorrow when we look into some other smart projects various cities and other countries are doing to encourage healthier lifestyles. Until then, happy President’s Day. Hope you had a wonderful weekend and have a happy heart this morning. I can’t wait for a clear night so I can get out and do some stargazing with my new telescope. Thanks, Mitch!