Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I grew up, has great things going for it. Community is tight. There’s not much crime, and the cost of living is low. When the river flooded five years ago, residents banded together, took care of their own and rebuilt. The town is prosperous again, housing is affordable, and people have enough money to afford a comfortable lifestyle.
But Cedar Rapids isn’t exactly a bastion of health. Fried pork tenderloins are a staple, and the extreme climate (bitter cold winters and hot, humid summers) doesn’t encourage outdoor activity. That can drive me crazy when I visit from hyper-healthy Boulder, Colo. Bike trails? Drop-in yoga class? Lots of luck.
And yet things are about to change. In late January, as part of his plan to make Iowa the healthiest state by 2016, Gov. Terry Branstad announced to much fanfare that Cedar Rapids was one of 10 Iowa cities chosen to be a Blue Zones Project demonstration site.
Branstad knew about Blue Zones from its previous successes in nearby Albert Lea, Minn., and three beach towns in Southern California. He was aware that in these places, writer/researcher Dan Buettner applied the lessons he learned from studying societies where people live on average 10 years longer than most and put them into practice in American cities.
Blue Zone projects have turned people’s lives around by involving the whole community, and Branstad felt Iowans would be motivated to go for this approach.
Sounds great, but could it really work? Iowa is the 18th fattest state and is headed in the wrong direction (it was formerly the 20th). It has an obesity rate of 29 percent, and is the state that invented deep-fried butter on a stick. It’s going to take something pretty miraculous to break through those die-hard Midwestern habits.
But Dan Buettner specializes in miracles.
(MORE: One Man's Diet: How I Lost Nearly 50 Pounds)
Lessons from People Who’ve Lived the Longest
In 2000, based on the research he’d done for the National Geographic Society, Buettner wrote The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, focusing on four locations where people live quantitatively and qualitatively better than the average: Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Sardinia’s Barbagia region; and a Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif. In all these places, people live to be 100 at a rate 10 times greater than the U.S. average.
Along with his partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer, Buettner teased out the health and longevity strands common to those communities, but he never found a golden thread. Buettner interviewed 255 centenarians in Blue Zone areas, but none could articulate his or her secret for living so long.
“I wholly believed I would find the secrets of longevity in some herb, food or diet,” Buettner says. “But longevity just happened to them. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible.”
The researchers’ biggest takeaway was that people in Blue Zones areas (Buettner says the name is random and has no significance) have built-in health-inducing infrastructures. Beyond that, he identified certain habits common to all these people and used them to create his Power 9 Principles.
These behaviors include eating a simple diet of locally grown whole foods, and doing physical activities like walking and manual labor. But, he says, mental, spiritual and emotional health might actually be more significant. Blue Zones residents belong to strong faith-based communities, they know their purpose, and they always find time for a beer or glass of wine with friends and family.
Okinawans, for example, belong to moais, groups of friends and neighbors with whom they stay for their entire lives. Seventh-Day Adventists congregate for daylong Sabbath observances and share communal vegetarian meals throughout the week. Sardinians end their days at the local bar. Socializing doesn’t need to be scheduled or programmed — it’s the fabric of everyday life.
“In Sardinia,” Buettner says, “if you don’t show up at the neighbors’ party, they’ll show up at your door to find out what’s wrong with you.”
(MORE: The Suburbs Are No Place to Grow Old)
Could It Work in a Fast-Food Nation?
After writing Blue Zones, Buettner took on the ultimate challenge: bringing the concepts to a typical U.S. city, where neighbors often don’t know one another and eating meals in cars is the norm. In 2009, Albert Lea, Minn., a town of 18,000 residents 90 miles south of Minneapolis, partnered with the United Health Foundation and AARP to become the first Blue Zones community project, with a stated goal of becoming “ground zero for the application of longevity research in America.”
For three years, Albert Lea residents made changes in how they ate, worked out and connected with one another through such initiatives as exercise programs at work and life-purpose workshops. Local businesses banned smoking on their campuses, restaurants revised menus to offer healthier options, and residents planted community gardens. Throughout the process, the Blue Zones team was on site, providing inspiration and support.
During the three-year experiment, Albert Lea residents created then regularly congregated in the National Vitality Center, a space shared with a downtown coffeehouse that’s open to anyone interested in launching or continuing wellness initiatives, like walking clubs. Volunteers created hiking trails, the town’s first-ever bike lane and a timber-frame building to store kayaks and canoes that residents and visitors are free to use.
“I wanted to build the boathouse, but my wife said, ‘How are you going to get this thing up?’” community education director Chris Chalmers recalls. “I said: ‘I don’t know. People will show up to build it.’ And they did. All it took was a strong back and a willingness to learn.”
The city’s success has been measurable — and impressive. Participants lost a total of 12,000 pounds and added an average of 3.1 years to their life expectancy. Their workplace absenteeism dropped by 21 percent, and the city employees among them reduced their health care costs by 40 percent. In a 2010 Newsweek article, Harvard University’s Walter Willet pronounced the results “stunning.”
“I think what’s the most telling is that we changed the culture,” says Randy Kehr, executive director of the Albert Lea Chamber of Commerce. “Even though the lights of Good Morning America and Nightline are gone, we’re carrying on. People continue to come together, do things and make an impact on the community. That, to me, is the heart of Blue Zones.”
(MORE: Community Gardens Grow More Than Food)
Yoga in an Iowa Park
To test whether Blue Zones could work anywhere, Buettner and his team took his concept to three upscale beach communities in Southern California in 2010: Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beach. While residents in these towns looked healthy, they hadn’t scored well in a Gallup Poll that measured stress, anger and worry. Could Blue Zones principles make a difference? Buettner wondered.
Among the first things the towns did was ban smoking on beaches and in other outdoor areas, help schools and restaurants improve menus, build pedestrian and bike corridors and institute “walking school buses,” a system wherein adults lead groups of kids to school. People bonded through these “walking moais,” and some 500 became volunteers.
Their efforts paid off. According to Gallup, which documented the project’s impact through well-being index surveys, residents lowered their smoking and obesity rates while increasing the amount of exercise and intake of fruits and vegetables.
These success stories were the reason the Iowa governor invited Buettner’s team to become an integral part of the Healthiest State drive that he launched in August 2011. Ten cities competed for the chance to be part of the project, which means receiving support from Blue Zones and other experts. Buettner says it takes only about 15 percent participation for the initiative to hit a tipping point and “cascade across the entire state of Iowa.”
Ellen Kehr, an Albert Lea City Council member and Vitality Team volunteer, is leading the Blue Zones initiative in Mason City, Iowa, just 40 miles from her hometown. “I’ve seen this work, and I’m positive it will work all across the state,” she says. “It takes a bit of time, but the community will embrace Blue Zones concepts. The great news is, there’s a huge difference between 2009 and 2013. In 2009 we didn’t have Jamie Oliver or Michelle Obama talking about healthy food and exercise.”
But it will take more than dieting and exercise to make the kind of change that Buettner and Branstad are interested in. “Expecting individual responsibility to carry the day is a bad idea,” Buettner says. “Permanent, semi-permanent changes to the environment are a whole different way of going about public health. We’re relying on silver buckshot, not a silver bullet.”
“These changes are sustainable,” Kehr says. “Business and industry have been left out of the health thing for so long, and they can drive a Blue Zones project. I truly believe that there are Iowans whose lives will change forever.”
She’s particularly optimistic about Cedar Rapids, where she believes the community is primed for change. She says I could expect to see bike trails and yoga in the park there soon.
I’ll be back.
Blue Zones Advice for Boomers
No question that healthy eating and an active lifestyle will make a difference in the quality of your life as you age. But in his studies of the world’s longest-living people, Dan Buettner discovered that “purpose is worth about eight years of life expectancy. The year you retire, you are three times more likely to die than during your last year of work,” he says. “To power through that relatively dangerous year, learning what your purpose is and doing it is crucial.”
Buettner advises people nearing retirement age to follow these steps.
- Take a mental inventory of what you’re good at and like to do, then incorporate those things into your life.
- Volunteer, dance or learn to play a musical instrument. “Be proactive, and put yourself in situations with people like you,” he says.
- Relocate if necessary. It sounds extreme, but Buettner firmly believes that “if you live in a place with no sidewalks or community center you can easily get to, you’re probably living in the wrong place.” Leaving the “soulless suburb” for a place with a vibrant, walkable downtown could make a huge difference. “It sounds radical, but if happiness had a recipe, the most important ingredient would be where you live.”
Robyn Griggs Lawrence, robyngriggslawrence.com, a Boulder-based writer who focuses on health and green living, will always be an Iowan at heart.