Communities strive for greater wellness, healthNo small community has received more attention for its health and wellness project than Albert Lea, Minn. thanks to a relatively new movement called “Blue Zones.”
By: By Jeff Holmquist, New Richmond News
There are a number of towns across the nation that have taken up the challenge of helping people become more health conscious.
Nearby New Ulm and Rochester in Minnesota have embarked on efforts that are similar to the soon-to-be-launched New Richmond “Vitality Initiative.”
But no small community has received more attention for its health and wellness project than Albert Lea, Minn. thanks to a relatively new movement called “Blue Zones.”
Beginning in 2001, fitness guru, researcher and author Dan Buettner teamed with researchers, doctors and other experts to identify five places around the world where people live long, healthy lives.
The longevity hot spots, which Buettner calls “Blue Zones,” are in Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; and among Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif. He authored a best-selling book on the subject and it received media attention from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, National Geographic and others.
“I had a feeling it was going to be big,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve done a number of expeditions, and we always have tried to find things that people care about. There was a lot of pent up interest in this topic, and the response was huge.”
Buettner said most people want to live a long, healthy life, but there was never an effort undertaken to outline a simple program people could follow to achieve that goal. The “Blue Zones” book appears to have accomplished that goal, he said.
“People instinctively know the pursuit of a pill is a hallow pursuit,” Buettner said. “To biologically alter yourself, that’s not really what people want.”
Instead, Buettner said, researchers recognized the wisdom of older generations which realized that living an active and socially-connected life promoted well-being and health.
That’s opposite from the way many live in today’s society, as people have become increasingly isolated and have settled into a sedentary lifestyle, he noted.
“People in the Blue Zones, they are living in a rich, socially-connected, purposeful way,” he said.
The research showed that genetics plays a role in how long and how well a person lives their life, but personal choices were a more important indicator in longevity.
“Because research has shown that behavior drives more than 80 percent of life expectancy, healthy behavior is the key to living a longer and healthier life,” said Buettner.
Buettner claims that most people have five years of unhealthy living at the end of their lives and will spend 90 percent of their lifelong health care dollars in these last few years.
“It’s worth it in health, life expectancy and dollars and cents to develop behaviors that will enable people to live healthier, better lives,” Buettner said.
The “Blue Zones” book identified nine key factors that play into a person’s health and wellness.
1. Move Naturally: Average Americans burn fewer than 100 calories a day engaged in actual exercise. Buettner said walking is the best activity for longevity, but building more activity into your everyday life can also make a difference.
2. Know your Purpose: People who know why they wake up in the morning live up to seven years longer than those who don’t. Buettner said people should identify their passions and talents and share them with others.
3. Down Shift: Stress needs to be counteracted by time away from the daily grind. Buettner suggests that everyone find time each day to meditate, nap, pray or enjoy a happy hour.
4. 80 Percent Rule: Try to cut 20 percent of your calories by following several pieces of advice — eat a big breakfast, eat with your family, remove the TV from your dining area and say pre-meal expressions of appreciation.
5. Plant Slant: Eat mostly a plant-based diet heavy on beans, nuts and green plants, “Blue Zones” experts suggest. Eat meat in small portions (the size of a deck of cards) fewer than twice weekly.
6. Wine at 5: Drinkers out-live non-drinkers, Buettner claims. Two glasses of wine daily will add years to your life, especially when consumed during a plant-based meal, but over indulging is not good either.
7. Family First: According to research, living in a thriving family is worth a half a dozen extra years of life expectancy, Buettner said. He recommends that parents invest time in their kids, nurture a monogamous relationship and keep aging parents nearby.
8. Belong: Recommit, reconnect or explore a faith-based community, “Blue Zone’s” research determined. People who participate in a faith community live an extra four to 14 years, Buettner said.
9. Right Tribe: Your friends have a long-term and measure impact on your health and longevity, Buettner notes. “Taking stock in who your friends are and expanding your social circle to include healthy-minded, supportive people might be the most powerful thing you can do to add years to your life,” the “Blue Zones” website suggests.
Buettner said the key is not making short-term changes and then reverting back to one’s previous lifestyle over time. To live longer and better, people need to sustain their new, healthy habits.
“Unless you’re changing in permanent ways, you’re not doing any good,” he said. “To add to your life expectancy, you need to focus on things that people will be doing for decades, not just for a short time.”
It wasn’t enough that Buettner wrote the book outlining the “Blue Zones” way. The Minnesota native and his business partners wanted to use the book’s revelations to help transform a typical community.
In 2009, Buettner helped direct a one-year community health experiment in Albert Lea where Blue Zones habits were put into practice. As a result, the people of Albert Lea raised their life expectancy by three years, trimmed a collective 12,000 pounds off waistlines and dropped health care costs of city workers by some 40 percent.
The effort caused quite a stir. Good Morning America, ABC Nightline, CNN and others all covered the Albert Lea story.
“We created a perfect storm of health that transformed a city,” Buettner said. “The town experienced a year-long journey in which they adopted 28 evidence-based ways to change their environment to live longer and better. They got healthier without thinking about it.”
Randy Kehr, Albert Lea’s Chamber of Commerce director and Vitality Project volunteer, said the effort brought the community a lot of attention. But the most important result of the “Blue Zones” experiment was a healthier city.
“It raised everyone’s awareness of how simple it is to improve your longevity,” he said. “There are some simple things you can do to make a difference. You just make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
Kehr said the project organizers, who estimated that about one-third of the community’s 18,000 residents participated in the Vitality Project during the year, were also impressed with how the effort brought the community together.
“This became a unified agenda for everyone,” he said. “The schools, worksites, city employees all took part.”
The project helped develop walking groups throughout the community, worked with the schools to provide better lunch offerings, partnered with businesses to improve employee health and reduce health care costs, encouraged restaurants to change their menus and offer more healthy choices, sponsored purpose workshops to help people plug into their passions and much more.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” Kehr said. “And we continue to move forward.”
Even after the Vitality Project year was done, Kehr said the city has continued to help local residents make healthy choices. The volunteer group is working with city officials to make Albert Lea more walker and biker friendly. They’ve worked with the grocery stores to promote healthy menu items to customers.
And they just recently completed a “Saturday Sampler” project which helped introduce people to a variety of different recreational and fitness options to help them find something they enjoy.
“We continue to be very committed to the program,” he said.
The community also has a goal of establishing The National Vitality Center in Albert Lea, which would help other communities achieve similar goals of health and wellness.
Buettner and the “Blue Zone” concept has chosen three communities in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.
Buettner’s work is also headed to Iowa. As the centerpiece of the “Iowa Healthiest State Initiative” that was announced recently, “Blue Zones” has been hired to lead a community-by-community movement to improve the well-being of Iowans.
Ten Iowa communities will be selected to participate in the community transformation effort to make permanent changes to achieve improved well-being, which should lead to lower health care cost trends, higher productivity and increased economic vitality.
“The goal over the next five years is to extend the process throughout all of Iowa,” Buettner said.