Hardware store owner and heart attack survivor Leo Aeikens spent most of his life with a 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 AARP and United Health Foundation that organizers say has added an average 3.1 years to the lives of Albert Lea residents through improved diet, exercise and living habits.
With organizers' help, the city crammed five years of sidewalk and bike trail construction into a year to make exercise easier for its 18,000 residents. Restaurants added healthier menu options 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 dubbed the "vitality compass."
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.