Albert Lea Blue Zones Project
- 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 17,600 people wanted to make a change
for its residents. Community leaders used the Blue
Zones framework to increase walkability and promote
healthy ways of living.
Numerous local businesses, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, public entities, nonprofit organizations, and community members have taken many steps toward increased wellness through this movement.
Blue Zones follows principles from other cultures and countries where longevity is attributed to healthy lifestyle. Through the project, Albert Lea has changed tobacco policy and improved citizen engagement, downtown revitalization, built environment, and the overall health of the community.
The pilot project was funded by Blue Zones, LLC and their partners. They have also received funding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic Health System, Walmart, and many other community organizations.
Albert Lea took the following 3 main steps 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 community members:
- Local business
- Public agencies
Walking/biking social group organization
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.” 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 neighborhoods:
- Unnecessary street lane elimination
- Sidewalk widening
- Diagonal parking restoration
- Replacement of stoplights with stop signs
- “Wayfinding” and “Share the Road” signage
- Shortening of crosswalk distances by extending intersections with sidewalk bumpouts
Additionally, over 8 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 a new bikeway 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 eating.
- Local grocery stores offered healthier options, education for customers on healthy choices, including a health food cart for customers
- The sports arena added healthier options to its concession stand
- 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.
- Community message boards were added to improve communication
- A park was renovated to include an amphitheater, now serving as a communal gathering space
- New businesses relocated to downtown
- Using a mixed-use development strategy, the city brought in income-limited housing units and commercial space in the historic downtown area.
- Restaurants created outdoor dining options for patrons
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 health improvements
Albert Lea’s improved environment supports walking and biking, and active living has become an integral part of the community’s culture of well-being. The following statistics show the support from the Albert Lea community behind the Blue Zones Project. In all, 40% of Albert Lea residents are involved in some way in the Blue Zones Project:
- 2.9 years were added to the lifespans of residents participating in Blue Zones initiatives within 1 year of joining
- 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 week
- 38% increase in walking and biking among community members
- 69 (50%) of businesses joined the Blue Zones Worksite project
- 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
- 507 public housing units, 11 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 participants
- 18% 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.
A Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index conducted in both July of 2014 and 2016 showed that Albert Lea surpassed both the national and state averages for being active and productive.
The City of Albert Lea received a 2016 Local Government Innovation Award for the Blue Zones Project Albert Lea.
Sources for more information:
- 2016 Blue Zones Project Case Study of Albert Lea, MN.
- Albert Lea: Operation Transformation, Irish TV show feature, 2017.
- The Minnesota Experiment, Blue Zones: The Science of Longer Living, 2016 National Geographic
- Albert Lea shows how walking and other healthy habits can rejuvenate a rural community, MinnPost, 2015
- Blue Zones project helped Albert Lea, Minn., find the benefits of walking, Star Tribune, 2015
- These Minnesotans Boosted Walking in Their Small Town by 70 Percent. Here's How, YES! Magazine, 2015
- The Minnesota Miracle, AARP The Magazine, 2010
- Creating America's Healthiest Hometown, AARP The Magazine, 2009
Challenges experienced in implementing high-level community initiatives of this type are almost exclusively tied to:
- 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 initiatives.
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.
Wellness, health promotion, and disease prevention
August 26, 2015
Date updated or reviewed
August 24, 2018
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.