July 22, 2009 -- For Bob, Sue, Tom and Tim Furland, getting healthy has become a family affair as organized as any.
That's because the Furlands are taking part in the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project in Albert Lea, Minn., in which people pledge to change several aspects of their personal environment to maintain all-around healthy living.
The Furlands have chosen to focus on the parts of the pact that relate to the household. That includes planting a garden and using a longevity grocery list of food that promotes health. The next step for the Furlands is drastically reducing their time in front of the tube.
To help them do that, this week, they removed their teenagers' bedroom television sets. "They agreed to it for four months," says Sue, 47. The TVs will be housed at her mother-in-law's home. Her son, Tom, 16, is planning to use music to fill the time because the family only has one computer. Their parents, however, will keep their TV in their bedroom to stay on top of the news, Sue says.
The Furlands were motivated to participate in the Vitality Project because Bob, 46, who works as a facilities manager for the town's arena, wanted to be deeply involved in the "unique and special project" Albert Lea was taking part in, Sue says.
The 10-month pilot project began in the town (pop. 18,000) in January to improve the health and projected life expectancy of people of all ages who live and work in Albert Lea. Sponsored by the United Health Foundation, the project aims to add at least 10,000 years of projected life expectancy to its residents (that's equivalent to at least two years of projected life expectancy for each participant) through both environmental and individual changes.
As far as environmental changes, the Furland family is slowly learning the art of gardening, having planted for the first time this past spring. The project notes the benefits of gardening are physical exertion and stress reduction.
Their children Tom and Tim, 13, have been as engaged in the effort as their parents, cutting out their frozen pizza dinners and taking their trips to the Y by bike, she says.
But not all of the lifestyle changes spelled out in the project have been welcomed in the Furland family. Their house is now stocked with nuts instead of chips and a lot more fruit and vegetables. "The kids grunt and groan about the grocery list. They're not huge fans of vegetables, but they're working on it," she says. Buying fresh groceries continually has made food preparation more time consuming, too, she admits.
In the process, they've shown how it's possible to make adjustments in a diet without too much difficulty. Sue used to eat a bag of M&M's to get her through the day. "I don't crave that anymore," she says.
Her husband's weakness is fast food. "He's been going to Subway a whole lot more now," she says because it's seen as a healthy alternative.
For the family, it used to be a habit to run to McDonald's after a soccer game; now it's just an occasional indulgence.
And to remind them when to stop eating when they are 80 percent full, they wear bracelets that say "Hari Hachi Bu" as is written in the project. The phrase from the ancient philosopher Confucius has helped many people eat less.
But this isn't a matter of sheer willpower. The Furlands are getting reinforcement from people in the community. Some members of the boys' soccer teams are participating in the Vitality Project, Sue says. For the adults, her family is encouraging, while "her friends are coming along," she says. "They're realizing that tortilla chips with flaxseed are healthier than the corn chips they eat. I wish more of my friends would jump on the bandwagon, but they're doing some of these things to some degree."
The Project's 14 Points
The project consists of 14 points, one of which is volunteering because those who volunteer are said to be happier and healthier than non-volunteers. Her husband, Bob, is one of them. "He sees a need, and he will sign up," she says. Recently that meant helping out after a street dance in the city. After work, he can often be found coaching his son's soccer team.
Meanwhile, Sue is part of Relay for Life, a team fundraising service that donates to cancer research.
Their children have inherited the volunteer spirit. Tom, who would like to be a firefighter, is part of "Fire Explorers." In addition to learning what it means to be a firefighter, he will clean fairgrounds before a fair. His younger brother would like to get involved when he's older, Sue says.
Even as the family has put their heart into this project, Sue sees room for self-improvement. She expresses a desire to do more volunteering, perhaps with her church. The project says that going to religious services regularly is associated with a longer life. "This would combine the two," she says.
The Furlands are practicing Catholics, though Sue is the most dedicated of the group because it's always been a part of her life, she says, adding that she probably goes 90 percent of the time. "It gives me peace of mind. My husband is working harder to go with me. The kids aren't the happiest to wake up early for church."
Ultimately, the family would like to be active in all the components of the Vitality Project, Sue says.
For the pledge, people commit to do at least four activities from the following list: attend a "purpose" workshop, use a vitality coach, walk children to school, weigh yourself daily, switch to 10-inch dinner plates, smaller bowls and skinny glasses, join a walking Moai (meeting regularly with a group of people), invite a friend to join an activity, plant a garden, shop using a longevity grocery list of food, get rid of TV in the kitchen and dining room, volunteer, attend religious services weekly, wear a "Hari Hachi Bu" bracelet and encourage their children to take part in the Blue Zones Education Programs.
People can take the Vitality Compass by logging on to www.aarp.org/bluezonesproject.