Your Health Checkup: Blue Zones for Healthy Living

Learn about the Blue Zones Project, a community-wide well-being initiative to help people live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ new book, Bear’s Promiseand check out his website www.dougzipes.us.

I live in Bonita Springs, Florida through the cold months, from October to April. The community is located just north of Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Naples and surrounding environs is a healthy community that has been ranked number one in the U.S. for wellbeing three years in a row by the Gallup Sharecare Wellbeing Index [registration required to view reports]. This index examines the quality of life according to five elements:

  • a community’s sense of purpose
  • social relationships that provide support and love
  • financial security
  • a relationship within the community so residents like where they live, feel safe, and have pride in the environment
  • physical health to provide enough energy to get things done

A major contributor to that concept of wellbeing has been the Blue Zones Project founded by National Geographic fellow, author, and producer Dan Buettner and sponsored by a local health care provider, NCH Health Care System. It is a community-wide well-being initiative to help people live longer, healthier, and happier lives by working within the environment where they live to make healthy choices easier. The concept is to build a well-being infrastructure that touches every aspect of a community through workplaces, schools, restaurants, etc., wherever people live and work, by collaborating with organizations and individuals to achieve the common mission of healthy lifestyle. There are such projects in over 50 communities in North America.

The Blue Zones Project was launched in southwest Florida in November 2015, impacting workplaces, restaurants, homeowner associations, schools and universities, faith-based organizations, grocery stores, and other organizations to help implement healthier practices in personal and professional lives. It is based on National Geographic research that found nine commonalities among people around the world who live the longest and healthiest lives. In a best-selling issue of The National Geographic, November 2004, the magazine published the article Secrets of Longevity by Dan Buettner, detailing the lifestyle of people living in Okinawa, Japan; Salinus, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula off the coast of Costa Rica; and the Greek island of Icaria.

It turned out that “those are among the happiest places on Earth,” Buettner said. “It’s not because they try to live a long time, but they are living in a place where the healthy choice is unavoidable.” He noted that living healthily doesn’t automatically guarantee happiness but living unhealthily almost guarantees unhappiness. “It’s very hard to be happy when you’re unhealthy.”

From that work, Buettner created the concept of Blue Zones, coined from the blue circles he drew on a map that identified those sites with extraordinary longevity. His book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, details the experience. He attempts to make healthier choices easier, such as offering fruit for dessert at a gathering instead of pastries, olive oil to replace butter on bread, and walking up stairs instead of taking the elevator. Called Power 9, these nine principles include:

  1. finding ways to move more, such as walking or biking to the local store instead of driving your car
  2. waking up with a purpose each day
  3. finding a stress-relieving activity that works for you
  4. eating mindfully and stopping when 80 percent full
  5. eating more fruits and vegetables
  6. scheduling social time with friends to enjoy friendships, healthy food and drink
  7. investing time with family
  8. belonging to a faith-based community and attending services regularly
  9. surrounding oneself with people who support positive behaviors and who support you

Nearly two hundred businesses and organizations have become Blue Zone certified in the Naples area. Many restaurants have altered menus to feature healthy options, smaller portions, and caloric examples. The Naples Walking Club encourages frequent walks with friends, completing the outing with breakfast at a local diner where fast friendships have formed. A workshop helps people identify their purpose and relieve stress. Residents responding to a national poll said they’re happier, healthier, and more socially connected, all factors found in communities with exceptional longevity.

Bonita Springs is a lovely place to live and having a healthy lifestyle provides an added bonus. To find out more about Blue Zones and Blue Zone communities, visit BlueZones.com.

Featured image: Venn Diagram created by the Quest Network to illustrate longevity clues in Blue Zones (Wikimedia Commons / public domain)

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