At the municipal level, city planners laid the groundwork for reconfiguring the towns' landscapes: Spencer allotted $200,000 for new sidewalks; Cedar Falls erected a pedestrian and bicycle bridge to connect a large residential area with an industrial district, providing people with a new way to commute to work; and Mason City developed a 15-year plan to create more bicycle and pedestrian trails. Blue Zone officials showed employers, schools, and restaurants how to become designated Blue Zone sites, and volunteers recruited residents to sign personal pledges. "We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice," Buettner says.

Indeed, the project's allure may lie in its easygoing approach. Instead of following restrictive eating rules or engaging in grueling workouts, participants are urged to make tiny changes that are more likely to encourage than overwhelm. "You don't have to become a health fanatic," says Robin Anderson, 56, president and CEO of the Mason City Area Chamber of Commerce, whose staff has swapped sit-down meetings for walking ones and nixed morning doughnuts. "It's not so hard if you start small."

Beth O'Donnell, 32, learned about the program through her employer. After taking the pledge, she began parking in the most remote spot in the company lot and opting to take the stairs instead of the elevator. While there are no repercussions if you fall off the wagon, she says the honor system has kept everyone on track: "We aren't competing with one another. We're helping each other be successful." As for Deb Muller, by following the pledge's "stop eating when you're 80 percent full" rule and committing to the weekly walks at work, she shed 35 pounds in a matter of months. "It helps to have everyone around you thinking and acting healthier," she says. "We're living life the way it's supposed to be lived."

The Blue Zones Project isn't just for adults. "Walking school buses" are one of its most popular initiatives. Led by volunteer teachers or parents, children who live near their public school can walk together, often picking up more students at stops along the way. Schools are also placing a greater emphasis on nutrition. At Waterloo's Orange Elementary School, the transformation has been inspiring. When students won a pizza party for having the highest participation in a community run last fall, principal Teri Trask was shocked by the kids' reaction. "I had students marching into my office telling me they wanted something healthy," she says. "That never happened before!"

Still, for all its successes, the program has faced its share of obstacles. Restaurants have been notoriously resistant, because tweaking menus can impact bottom lines, and chain franchises aren't set up to accommodate variations on the norm. "Iowa is a pork state," says Buettner. "People's palates aren't used to plant-based meals, especially when they're dining out. Restaurants are coming around, but it's taking longer here than it did in California."

Despite the challenges, Iowa seems well on its way to reaching its goal. In Cedar Falls, not only have residents collectively lost weight, but there has also been a nearly 4 percent drop in the number of people with high cholesterol and a 10 percent decline in the number of smokers. Most impressive: As of the latest tally, Iowa had gone from 16th-healthiest state in 2011 to tenth in 2013.

Buettner says he already has his eye on Texas and Hawaii. "We started in one tiny city, and now this project has touched the lives of more than five million people," he says. "It's clear that we're onto something, and we're not stopping."


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