Can your city make you healthy?


Blue Zones Project

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Simply put, the result of not enough physical activity and making poor food choices has resulted in an obesity epidemic that is leaving too many people vulnerable to cardiovascular and chronic diseases. Tackling obesity is no simple feat, and doing so successfully may take a village, so to speak. Communities in California and Iowa, for example, are demonstrating that a city really can help make its citizens healthier.

With nearly two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, and only 7% of Americans thriving across all five elements of well-being, Beach Cities, Calif., and 15 Iowa communities are leading a movement to improve community health by becoming certified as Blue Zones Communities.

The Blue Zones Project is a growing nationwide well-being improvement initiative designed to make healthy choices easier — community by community — through permanent changes to environment, policy and social networks. Founded by National Geographic Fellow and bestselling author Dan Buettner and leveraging public and private partnerships, Blue Zones Project draws upon more than 200 evidence-based practices to help restaurants, schools, churches and worksites make sustainable changes that encourage healthier choices.

The Beach Cities of Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach, Calif., are the most recent to achieve Blue Zones Project certification, noting measureable declines in the number of smokers and obese or overweight residents, and a drop in significant daily stress across the three cities. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, since implementing Blue Zones Project in 2010, in Beach Cities:

  • The number of overweight citizens dropped nine points to 50.8%, while the national rate rose four points to 63.7% in 2015. The number of obese residents came in at less than half the national average, at 12.1% compared with 28.1% nationally.
  • Smoking declined more than 17%, bringing the percentage of smokers in the Beach Cities to 8.9%, compared with 18.8% nationally. 
  • Daily significant stress dropped 7.5%.

"It's very rare you get the opportunity to address community health issues directly and utilize a world-class measurement tool — the Well-Being Index — to chart your progress, but Blue Zones Project made it possible," said Susan Burden, chief executive officer of Beach Cities Health District. "The dramatic health outcomes validate the years of hard work and sustained commitment to health exhibited by our entire community."

In Iowa, 15 communities — Algona, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Fairfield, Harlan, Iowa City, Marion, Mason City, Muscatine, Oskaloosa, Sioux City, Spencer, Spirit Lake, Waterloo and Woodbine — have become certified since joining Blue Zones Project. The statewide effort, sponsored by Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, kicked off in 2011.

From 2010 to 2014, the Well-Being Index data shows Iowa outpacing the nation in overall well-being, improving at twice the rate of the national average. Leading that charge, each of the state's Blue Zones Communities passed complete streets policies, putting a focus on improved walkability and bikability. More than 600 worksites, schools, restaurants and grocery stores adopted best practices from Blue Zones regions, or pockets of the world with the highest rates of centenarians. Several Blue Zones Communities instituted new tobacco policies and established safer walking routes for school children, while statewide nearly a quarter million Iowans pledged to make healthier choices every day.

"Watching the progress Iowa's Blue Zones Communities have made over the past five years has been exciting," said Laura Jackson, executive vice president of Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. "The hard work and dedication of these communities has shown that a community-based approach can make a difference in transforming the environment in which Iowans live, work, and play."

Beach Cities and the Iowa cities are among 27 communities across seven states that are now part of Blue Zones Project.

"Iowa became our first statewide and most geographically extensive project, and Beach Cities was one of the first in the nation to take on the Blue Zones Project challenge, and the results speak for themselves," said Katrina Worlund, Healthways senior vice president, Blue Zones Project. "Through the extraordinary leadership of our sponsors, these communities are at the forefront of an important nationwide movement to impact individual well-being and create stronger, more socially and economically vibrant communities."

Buettner identified the original Blue Zones as five regions of the world with the highest concentration of people living to 100 years or older. They include Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy.

"Iowa and Beach Cities demonstrate that we really can take the best practices from around the world, and with extensive community engagement, make a significant impact on community and individual well-being," said Buettner. "When asked the question, 'Can your city make you healthy?' The results in these cities show the answer is 'yes.' Beach Cities and the 15 Blue Zones Communities in Iowa offer a powerful example for other cities throughout the country."

Cities interested in learning how they can impact community well-being through Blue Zones Project can get more information at www.bluezonesproject.com.