The Heart of New Ulm -- Beating Heart Disease and Diabetes

This is the story of how the people in one small city are banding together to make health a priority. They are on a 10-year mission to move more, eat better, and reduce heart attacks -- and it's working!
  • Home of Beer, Brats & Butter

    New Ulm, Minnesota, is a quaint small city a couple hours south of Minneapolis and populated by about 14,000 people, many of German ancestry. "Our German heritage put beer, brats, and butter on the menu too often, widened our waistlines, and escalated our heart disease risk factors," says Rebecca Fliszar, RD, a community dietitian.

    But in 2008, the town leaders decided to do something that would impact New Ulm and its residents for years to come. They designated their community's health as a top priority and began taking action by installing sidewalks and parks. At the same time, Kevin Graham, M.D., former cardiologist and president at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, and Dick Pettingill, former CEO of Allina Health System, who both knew coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and worldwide, were planning a long-term community project to reduce risk factors for heart disease and, ultimately, reduce incidences of heart attacks. To implement the project, they were looking for a community that was ready and willing to change.

  • The Heart of New Ulm

    Nearly half of the town's population was at risk of or living with prediabetes or diabetes when the project began. Even though New Ulm had heart disease and diabetes risk factors a bit higher than national averages, choosing this town had more to do with vision and infrastructure than diet and disease risk. New Ulm already had support and facilities in place, and Graham, who traveled there for years as a cardiologist, knew firsthand that if the residents of New Ulm bought into this program, they would ensure its success. Another key factor: The New Ulm Medical Center, part of Allina Health's electronic health-records system, contained data on more than 90 percent of the New Ulm population. The project was named Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm.

    Meet some of the folks who have made this project such a success and inspiration.

  • Meet Mayor Bob Beussman, PWD type 2

    To transform a community into one where healthy living reigns supreme calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach. The Heart of New Ulm employs staff housed in both New Ulm and the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. But raising awareness, doing screenings, holding events, and more takes a village. Support now comes from all sectors of the community, including employers, health care providers, hundreds of residents, and city leaders, such as Mayor Bob Beussman.

    "Before the Heart of New Ulm project, I had quadruple-bypass heart surgery," says Mayor Beussman. "My family and I went through a lot of pain and worry. If this project can prevent even one family from going through that experience, this will be worth it. But I know many more families that are and will be healthier because of this project. I'm so proud to be a part of it. Some of us need a wake-up call before we realize we should take better care of ourselves."

  • Chef and Restaurant Owner George Cottom, PWD Type 1

    One community member who has joined the Heart of New Ulm brigade of activists is George Cottom, owner of George's Fine Steaks & Spirits, a downtown restaurant.

    George has had type 1 diabetes for 25 years and is an avid runner. He's involved in the initiative to get restaurants to offer healthier menu items based on nutrition guidelines that include more vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthier fats, and smaller portions.

  • Real People Making Real Change

    "When the directors of the Heart of New Ulm project approached me to ask if I could add some heart-healthy recipes to my menu, I said, 'Of course!' I have type 1 diabetes, so I know how important it is to know what's in a serving," says George. "I have a lot of customers who love the healthier food choices."

  • Community Dietitian Rebecca Fliszar, RD

    Education is key. "The way a person with diabetes should eat is the model we'd like everybody to follow," says Rebecca. "We want to influence people everywhere they buy food, from information and guidance at grocery stores and restaurants to things like brochures with healthy snack ideas at convenience stores. We also provide follow-up support from dietitians who make phone calls and house visits."

  • Family Physician Charles Stephens, M.D.

    "I have patients who say, 'Hey, Doc, did you notice I lost 10, 20, 50 pounds?' When I ask them how they did it, they say, 'I quit eating the extra junk I didn't need,' or 'I just decided it was time.' It's important that people know it's their choice to make a difference in their own health," says Dr. Stephens, a family practice physician at Allina Medical Center.

  • A Community Moving Forward

    "This project is like a critical-mass bicycle ride. If you get enough bikes out there, they can take over the streets," says Dr. Stephens, who is regularly seen on his bike around town.

  • Director of Heart Beats Back Jackie Boucher, RD, CDE

    "I think some of what motivates and engages the residents of New Ulm is knowing that they are a model community for what can become a health movement across the nation," says Jackie. "Throughout this study we want to create some innovative programs, and we've already been showing that many of them work. Our goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice."

  • Practical Solutions

    Signs and brochures placed in several New Ulm convenience stores encourage customers to make more healthful drink and snack swaps. Nadine Bode, who works nights and early mornings at a convenience store, sees the progress firsthand. "People have traded pastry for fruit because it's available and they're more conscious," she says.

  • New Ulm Resident & Walk Organizer Nadine Bode

    "I quit smoking, so whenever I wanted a cigarette, I'd take my dog for a walk instead," says Nadine, who has prediabetes. "Then I'd wonder, Why do I have so much free time now? So I got the walking bug and started signing up for 5Ks. My goal was always just to finish. And yes, a few times I was the last one, but I always finished.

    "I never dreamed I'd be helping organize 5Ks. I didn't know it would be this much fun."

  • Create Your Own 'New Ulm'

    The Heart of New Ulm project is one of hundreds of ventures in motion across the country to maximize health and minimize heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Take a look at a few programs going on around you.

    Community Level

    Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute in Dallas

    The Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute (DHWI) opened in Dallas in 2010 after years of planning. The novel thing about this program is that it's housed at a recreation center accessible by public transportation, not at a hospital. DHWI weaves diabetes prevention into the fabric of the community to make the services natural and convenient parts of daily life. People can see their health care providers, attend cooking classes, and work out in the gym. The program also has weekly farm stands that ease access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Go to to learn more.

    State Level

    Live Healthy Iowa

    Live Healthy Iowa started in 2001 as an initiative to make Iowa the healthiest state in America. The program brings together friends, families, coworkers, and communities in team-based wellness challenges. "Today, nearly 200,000 Iowans are living healthier and have lost over 800,000 pounds in just over a decade," says Nicole Bruce, health initiatives director of Live Healthy Iowa. Live Healthy Iowa led to the creation of Live Healthy America in 2006. Check out to learn more.

    National Level

    National Diabetes Prevention Program

    The National Diabetes Prevention Program (NDPP), led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Diabetes Translation, is on a mission to prevent the progression from prediabetes to type 2. "Prediabetes affects 79 million Americans. The time for action is now," says Ann Albright, Ph.D., RD, director of the NDPP in Atlanta. At-risk individuals work with a lifestyle coach in a group setting to make modest behavior changes, improve food choices, and increase physical activity. Visit to learn more.

    Read the full story: Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm

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