Return of the walking moai

Published 11:30 am Friday, May 21, 2010

Encouraged to succeed by Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner, about 115 Albert Lea residents came together Thursday night at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds to kick off the 2010 walking moai competition and get a jump-start on other Vitality Project initiatives. 

Gathered at the grandstand at the fairgrounds, those in attendance included young and old, children and adults. 

“You’re an inspiration for all of America,” Buettner said, as he reflected on the results of last year’s AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, in which organizers set out to help residents live longer, happier, healthier lives. 

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He called the Vitality Project “a big risk on everyone’s part,” but noted that “the results in this town were stunning, so my hat is off to you.”

Buettner, a world explorer and author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” said since the Vitality Project ended in October under the direction of AARP and Blue Zones, the project has received recognition from numerous publications and media outlets. It is still noted in notable publications, he said. 

The most recent magazine to show interest in the project is U.S. News & World Report. 

He encouraged Albert Leans to re-enforce the connections they made in 2009 during the project, starting off with the moai initiative and to continue in the success they found then. 

The moai competition

Nancy VanderWaerdt, one of the organizers of the moai competition, said this year there will be several different categories competing as moais. 

There will be moai groups of students — grade school, middle school and high school — along with groups for seniors, another for miscellaneous seniors or neighborhood groups, and a last for workplace moais. Even residents at area nursing homes will be getting involved. 

Moai is a term that originates on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where children are put into small groups with other children when they are young. The children stay together with the other members of their group throughout their lives. They walk together, talk together, garden together, eat together and share life’s experiences together. 

The goal of the moais in Albert Lea is to create something similar as in Okinawa, where people are engaged and connected to each other. 

Last year the program focused solely on walking groups; this year, it is focusing on walking plus other forms of activity.

Competition will be judged on most steps and most volunteer hours. 

Catherine Buboltz, another one of the organizers of the moai, said steps will be averaged out per person in the moai.

 If a person walks with his or her moai, which must have a minimum of three people, that person can count any individual activity that week as well. Activity includes virtually almost any exercise, including gardening, biking, mowing and water-skiing, to name a few, Buboltz said.  

Several Albert Lea residents are meeting at Christ Episcopal Church on Saturday at 10 a.m. to walk around Fountain Lake. There will be guests from the St. Paul Hiking Club and the city of Ely in attendance to learn more about the Vitality Project and participate in the walk.

A conversion chart of these types of activity tells how many steps other activities would be valued at. 

Double steps can be counted if participating in a walking school bus or when walking to a church service. 

Volunteer hours follow similar guidelines, in that they will also be averaged out per person in the moai. 

Steps and volunteer hours will be turned in weekly. 

“We’re all excited to get this under way again,” Buboltz said. 

The competition runs through Aug. 10, with a finale scheduled for Aug. 26. 

VanderWaerdt said a few Albert Lea City Council members have also agreed to host ward walks in Albert Lea. First Ward Councilor Vern Rasmussen will host a 1st Ward walk on June 6 at 1 p.m. in Lakeview Park, and 3rd Ward Councilor Ellen Kehr will host one starting at Southwest Middle School on June 17 and 7 p.m.

Other ward walks will be announced at a later date. 

What else is happening with the Vitality Project this year?

While the event was a kickoff for this year’s moai competition, it was also a chance for Vitality Project organizers to discuss what’s in the works for the other project initiatives. 

“We are alive and well,” said Vitality Project Co-Coordinator Pat Garbisch. “Everything is going full-speed ahead in Albert Lea.” 

Garbisch encouraged those in attendance to keep the momentum of the project going with this year’s events. 

She said there are several walking school buses at Hawthorne and Lakeview elementary schools that are being led by parents and community volunteers. 

All 116 community garden plots at the Spark Avenue and Brookside locations have been rented, and a new children’s garden program has also been created at Halverson Elementary, she noted. 

The restaurant initiative is in the works, and Vitality Project organizers are planning community-wide life-purpose workshops for late summer or early fall, Garbisch said. Likewise, healthy cooking classes are in full gear — being taught by dietitian Amy Pleimling at Hy-Vee, and there are still several planned for the summer. 

Vitality Project Co-Coordinator Alice Englin said planning is being completed for the city’s first bike lane on Front Street, along with the addition of bike racks in several public places, including downtown and near the public library. 

Albert Lea schools are starting a healthy snacks program at the elementary level, and she is working to set up some wellness committees for several workplaces, to name a few.

Project leaders encouraged attendees to tell other people about the initiatives and to continue reconnecting to the community. 

Joel Spoonheim, who worked as Blue Zones health initiative director during the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, said last year when the moais kicked off there were 400 people involved. When the initiative ended at the end of the summer there were more than 600. 

“Make it so much fun that people want to join you,” said Joel Spoonheim, who worked as Blue Zones health initiatives director during the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project. 

Before and after the kickoff, Albert Lea Medical Center crews offered free blood pressure and body mass index checks, and attendants could walk around and check tables with information out other initiatives.

Buettner’s new goal

Buettner said he came back to Albert Lea in 2010 with the goal of getting at least one school in Albert Lea to get buses to drop off students a quarter of a mile away from the school.

This would give students riding the bus the opportunity to walk half of a mile total to and from school.