In My Opinion
Barry County to become Blue Zones community
Maybe the bad rap about living a healthy lifestyle has been deserved.
Most of us who’ve been hounded by constant diet reminders and side-effect warning labels can relate to American cynic and humorist Mark Twain who once said, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”
Too bad Mr. Twain didn’t know about the Blue Zones movement. Because if he were living in Barry County today, Twain would be interested in perhaps the most exciting and enlightening health movement our culture has encountered and in the opportunity it is going to begin offering us here soon.
In 2004, best-selling New York Times author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buetner set out to discover geographic areas where people tend to live longer and healthier lives. With the support of National Geographic magazine, Buetner found five pockets in the world where people reach the age of 100 at a rate 10 times greater than in the United States.
Labeling these pocket communities “Blue Zones,” Buetner and his team drilled down to the environment, habits and daily rituals of these special communities and sought to extrapolate the data and replicate it in cities, neighborhoods and groups in the United States. Blue Zones experts maintain that communities which adopt their program will have improved health outcomes, reduced health costs, and increased civic pride. That, in turn, will enhance the places in which their residents live, work, and play.
Since 2010, the Blue Zones movement has impacted more than 3 million lives in 50 communities across North America. Its unique, systematic approach improves well-being by focusing on the “life radius” places where people routinely spend time: schools, restaurants, faith-based organizations, grocery stores and worksites.
Blue Zones maintains we spend 90 percent of time in the same places, and that environment dictates how easy or difficult it is to make healthy choices. By improving where we live, work, learn and play, we make it easier to get out and move, to eat healthy, to make new friends and to find a reason for being – and to live longer and better lives.
Thanks to the vision of key community leaders and the financial investment they’ve chosen to make, Barry County is now welcoming the Blue Zones movement to our community. The project is a backed by a $1.4 million pledge from three foundations, a private philanthropist and three organizations in the community that have stepped up to support the effort.
This is not about beneficent intimidation; it’s about valuing people and providing them with information that could impact their lives. And what’s especially remarkable is that Barry County will become the first Blue Zones community in Michigan, setting a standard for the entire state.
Hastings resident Allison Wiswell was recently named as the local representative to spearhead the Blue Zones movement in Barry County. Wiswell comes to the position with years of experience working with area companies and their health improvement programs. She will be supported by expert assistance from Blue Zones staff members who have the experience and knowledge necessary to help communities like ours be successful.
The program is being made possible through support from several local entities, including the MTC Fund, Spectrum Health Pennock Foundation and Hastings Fiberglass. Secondary sponsors are Highpoint Community Bank, Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, Barry Community Foundation, the DeCamp Family Foundation and in-kind support from the Barry-Eaton District Health Department and Barry County. The benefit that this county will receive makes these investors true community champions.
“The message of the program is different from other health programs,” Wiswell said. “It’s not based on individual will power, diets and exercise. It’s about changing the environment so healthy choices are easier to make.”
According to a recent report from Pew Research Center researcher Cary Funk, “Most Americans would like to live beyond today’s average life expectancy. But, on the other hand and perhaps surprisingly, a majority of Americans say they would not choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live decades longer – to 120 or more.”
In other words, Americans want extended life expectancy to come from changes in their lifestyles, healthier living and less stress in their lives – all of which are part of the Blue Zones program. From their research of those original Blue Zones communities around the world, program leaders know that by just eating 20 percent less than normal, walking, gardening or even dancing, we can attain better health.
“The activity doesn’t have to be strenuous – just consistent,” Blue Zoners said, also suggesting that having a strong sense of purpose can add several years to life expectancy.
So, this is more than just the latest weight-loss program or probiotics magic chant to make us feel better. Blue Zones encompasses more than just our diets, it’s about changing our lifestyles through healthy living, relaxing, thinking about what we eat and avoiding negative situations.
Another Pew Research Center report supports this approach, indicating that people around the world who regularly participate in religious communities tend to be happier, more engaged in civic activities, and healthier than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of a church. Religiously active people tend to smoke and drink less, but they are not necessarily healthier in terms of exercise frequency or rates of obesity, according to Pew. They’re well-being has more to do with their mental health and social engagement than it does the traditional measures of general health.
A sense of purpose and a person’s feeling of wellbeing come from learning how to downshift and finding ways to relax, which reduces the stress that leads to chronic inflammation associated with every major age-related disease. Building a sense of belonging, understanding the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and nurturing our spiritual lives can add years to life. The research proves it.
“With age comes the understanding and appreciation of your most important asset: Your health,” Oprah Winfrey said.
That’s why these local leaders were willing to invest in the Blue Zones project. They feel it’s an investment in our community that could impact so many families. The message that Barry County is serious about its people, its health and its future also is an investment in community growth that will attract young families, talent and business to the area.
Watch for more information in our papers; there’s a lot of excitement to come as the program gets underway.
If he were here, Mark Twain would surely change his words.
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.