Fast-forward to this past August: Tanya Horner, now 37, has lost 76 pounds, her mother, Mary Koch, 56, has lost 38. Horner no longer has sleep apnea, Koch’s cholesterol has improved, and both women like the way they look and love their new life.
Though they are successful by any account, they hardly stand out in New Ulm: Their neighbor, Pat Novak, 52, has lost 20 pounds and stopped using insulin to control his type 2 diabetes. His wife, Sharie, 51, is 30 pounds lighter. Nearby, John Holmquist, 57, has lost 35 pounds, dramatically dropped his blood pressure and cholesterol, and feels stronger than he did in his thirties. In fact, all around town people are posting lower weights, getting more exercise and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
So what changed in this formerly bratwurst-eating, beer-drinking, butter-spreading town? The answer is the Heart of New Ulm (HONU) Project, a 10-year effort with the outrageous goal of eliminating heart attacks and persuading the people of New Ulm to drastically reduce their weight. In the past few years HONU has saturated the town with exercise programs, health screenings, healthy cooking classes and other campaigns. It’s infiltrated homes, restaurants and workplaces.
Horner, Koch, the Novaks and Holmquist are participating guinea pigs in this giant experiment, and, so far, it seems to be working: Just three years since the program began, New Ulmites have less hypertension, lower cholesterol, are eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting more exercise. Among the program participants, 981 people have lost a collective 7,961 pounds. And very preliminary results show a 24 percent reduction in heart attacks after 15 months of the project. (Boucher warns that they need many years of data to know if there has been real improvement.)
Boucher, the HONU project director, sees it like this: “If you can, make the healthy choice the easy choice—so that wherever you go it’s easy to be active or find healthier foods. That’s where you can really start to change social norms.” And that’s just what she and her team set out to do. But there were roadblocks, namely the very essence of the town itself.