Need: Healthy lifestyles are often difficult to achieve for community members of rural, small-town areas.
Intervention: The rural community of Albert Lea, as part of the Blue Zones Pilot Project, implemented walking and biking initiatives along with high-level policy systems and environmental changes to promote health and wellness.
Results: In the past 5 years, there has been a 38% increase in walking and biking among community members, and they have lost a combined total of 8,000 pounds.
The agriculturally-based, rural Minnesotan community of
Albert Lea is creating new ways for its members to more
readily choose healthy lifestyles. After the economic
downturn in 2008, the community of 18,000 people wanted
to make a change for its residents. Community leaders
used the Blue Zones
Project framework to increase walkability and promote
healthy ways of living.
Blue Zones follows principles from other cultures and
countries where longevity is attributed to healthy
lifestyle. The Albert Lea Blue
Zones Project has changed tobacco policy and improved
citizen engagement, downtown revitalization, built
environment, and the overall health of the community.
Numerous local businesses, schools, restaurants, grocery
stores, public entities, nonprofit organizations, and
community members have taken many steps toward increased
wellness through this movement.
Albert Lea focused on the following areas to transform
their community as part of the Blue Zones Project:
Public education campaign
A campaign to emphasize the social acceptance of
community wellness was implemented. The following people
and places were given the charge to promote walking among
Walking/biking social group
In an effort to increase accountability and incentive to
get active, community members were encouraged to create
informal walking groups. These small groups of 5-10
people, called walking
moais, can be found in neighborhoods, worksites, and
social groups citywide.
Community events were held, such as "Open Streets Albert
Lea," "Just Play," and the "Family Bike Rodeo," and
"Tunes Trikes and Bikes and Rock and Roll the Lakes."
These events focused on active living, non-motorized
forms of transportation, and viewing the community in a
new way while biking and walking.
Appealing public spaces for pedestrians
The following measures were taken to increase the
walkability of downtown Albert Lea and its surrounding
Unnecessary street lane elimination.
Diagonal parking restoration.
Replacement of stoplights with stop signs.
"Wayfinding" and "Share the Road" signage.
Shortening of crosswalk
distances by extending intersections with sidewalk curb
Additionally, over 12 miles of sidewalks were added to
city streets surrounding businesses, schools, and senior
centers. A 5-mile "Blue Zones Walkway" around Fountain
Lake which lies in the center of Albert Lea was also
added. The city also created 2 new bikeways that
connected its downtown area to a state park.
The project highlighted healthy food options in the
community and created opportunity to engage in healthy
Local grocery stores offered healthier options,
education for customers on healthy choices, including a
health food cart for customers.
The sports arena, aquatic center, and high school
concessions stands added healthier options.
Expanded the community garden to give more space for
residents to grow their own food.
Blue Zones partnered with the city to change policy
around tobacco use. Changes included smoking measures for
public housing, parks and events, outdoor dining, and
local businesses. In 2019, Albert Lea raised the tobacco
purchasing age to 21 to help address the vaping
Community message boards were added to improve
A park was renovated to include an amphitheater, now
serving as a communal gathering space.
Restaurants created outdoor dining options for
Community Splash Pad.
Improving workplace health
Employers became designated "Blue Zone Worksite" to
improve the health and wellbeing of their employees.
To join, employers complete an assessment, noting
their goals for creating a healthier environment for
employees through physical, mental, emotional, and social
Helping schools teach students how to lead longer,
healthier lives through the following initiatives:
Healthy snack carts.
Water bottle filling stations.
Smarter Lunch Room program.
Indoor recess kits.
Walk-a-thons and other non-food fundraising efforts.
Walk and Roll maps for to show Safe Routes to School,
sidewalk placement, and time/distance of routes.
Through the Blue Zones Project, Albert Lea has integrated
active living into the community's culture. Nearly half
of Albert Lea residents are involved in some way in the
Project. Other results include:
2.9 years were added to the lifespans of residents
participating in Blue Zones initiatives within 1 year of
7 schools joined; all of the students in Kindergarten
through 12th grade participated.
$7.5 million in healthcare costs for employers was
saved from the decline of tobacco use.
12 free annual events were created to promote
community engagement and nurture social networks.
11% decrease in prescription costs and no increase in
insurance premiums for school district employees.
12+ businesses relocated to downtown Albert Lea.
30% decrease in tobacco use among adults.
30+ walking and biking groups that meet 3-7 times per
38% increase in walking and biking among community
69 (50%) of businesses joined the Blue Zones Worksite
80% of Albert Lea residents found the community very
supportive of non-motorized forms of transportation.
300% increase in funds from insurance carriers for
participating in Blue Zones wellness initiatives.
550 public housing units, 13 worksites, and other
public parks, fairs, events, and outdoor dining
eliminated tobacco use.
7,800+ citizens took action (40%) of Albert Lea
residents have been involved in some way.
8,000 pounds was the combined weight lost from
58% increase in sports
concession sales after healthy options were added.
Albert Lea helped Freeborn County improve their health
ranking from 68th to
34th out of 87 Minnesota counties since
the project began.Read more successes of the Albert Lea
initiative on the
Blue Zones website.
Albert Lea Blue Zones project has received the
A Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index conducted in
July of 2014, 2016, and 2019 showed that Albert Lea
surpassed both the national and state averages for being
active and productive.
Challenges experienced in implementing high-level
community initiatives of this type are almost exclusively
Building advocacy for changes in the built
environment on the community level.
Staff dollars to keep all the
initiatives connected and moving in the same direction.
Funding partners for built environment projects can also
be challenging, but with a good leadership team and
dedicated staffing, they can be found.
Sustaining active living initiatives is ultimately a
community decision that requires a long-term commitment
to funding and staffing dedicated to driving those
The most critical component to replicating a successful
active living initiative is engaging community leadership
on a very high level from across all sectors with this
common vision in mind. Albert Lea calls it the "shared
leadership model." The leadership team and the resources
they are willing to share moving toward a common goal
will ultimately determine the level of success.
Please contact the models and innovations contact directly for the most complete and current information
about this program. Summaries of models and innovations are provided by RHIhub for your convenience. The
programs described are not endorsed by RHIhub or by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Each rural
community should consider whether a particular project or approach is a good match for their community’s
needs and capacity. While it is sometimes possible to adapt program components to match your resources, keep
in mind that changes to the program design may impact results.