Blue Zones Project
Making healthy choices easier in Oregon
Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services employees are practicing the healthy strategies that they teach. The wellness committee there recently implemented strategies that include standing or walking meetings to encourage movement throughout the day; the installation of health-friendly equipment, including standing desks, wireless headsets and exercise balls; and the posting of upbeat messages throughout the offices. Employees also get 30 minutes of “wellness time” every day for activities such as working out in the weight room or walking on a nearby nature trail.
The clinic is not alone. In the Klamath Falls area, more than 60 worksites, schools, grocery stores, restaurants, faith-based groups and civic organizations are undertaking similar efforts. It’s all part of the Blue Zones Project, an initiative that helps communities make healthier choices easier for their residents.
Blue Zones Project is a nationally renowned well-being improvement initiative focused on helping communities change the places and spaces where people spend most of their time every day. The initiative believes that by transforming these settings to make healthy choices easier, communities can better inspire physical health, social connection and community vitality.
The Blue Zones Project approach is based on principles identified during an eight-year worldwide longevity study detailed in researcher Dan Buettner’s best-selling book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (available through the Select Books Program). Buettner concludes that people inhabiting Blue Zones — pockets of long-lived communities — share common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to their longevity. He and his team of researchers brought these findings back to the United States, where they partnered with health solutions company Healthways to create Blue Zones Project.
In 2009, Blue Zones Project applied the longevity tenets of the book in a pilot effort in Albert Lea, Minnesota, successfully raising life expectancy and lowering healthcare costs for city workers by 40 percent. Today, more than 40 communities around the country have adopted Blue Zones Project principles to improve the health of their residents. Four of those communities are right here in Oregon.
Blue Zones Project was brought to Oregon in 2014 by Cambia Health Foundation in support of Oregon Healthiest State, a privately led, publicly supported partnership aiming to create and sustain healthy environments that support healthy lifestyles.
Klamath Falls became Oregon’s first Blue Zones Project Demonstration Community in 2015. In April, three more areas were selected to participate in the transformative project: The Dalles, Grants Pass and the Umpqua region surrounding Roseburg.
Oregon Healthiest State
“Oregon Healthiest State leads the community transformation strategy, fundraising and expansion of the Blue Zones Project work in Oregon,” explains Sarah Foster, executive director of Oregon Healthiest State, “and Blue Zones Project is the implementation arm that provides the tools and expertise to help communities reach their goals.”
The Blue Zones Project Demonstration Community model is a community-led, cross-sector approach to making the healthy choice the easy choice in the places where people spend most of their time. The goal of these efforts is to better inspire physical health, social connection and community vitality.
In Klamath Falls, for example, the City Council passed an Urban Trails Master Plan, setting funding priorities to enhance walkability and bikeability for the next 20 years, meeting a community-identified goal.
“What I’ve seen in Klamath Falls is a community really engaged and focused on its own health and well-being,” says Aaron Patnode, executive director of Blue Zones Project Oregon. “They are making permanent and semi-permanent changes to spaces in the community so that an environment of health and well-being is created there to make the healthy choice easy for the community.”
These changes can be small, like restaurants making half-size portions available, to large, such as changes in infrastructure policy to improve walkability.
The three new Blue Zone Project communities began their work in June with a series of meetings to identify current health-related efforts and to establish community priorities. “Each community has different health needs, different interests,” Patnode says. “One of the things I really enjoy is having conversations with individuals who represent different aspects and parts of a community to learn about what the health and well-being goals and opportunities really are. How can we support them? What do they want to try? What did they fail with but wish the outcome was different?”
“The process is designed to break down silos, and takes a holistic approach to what the community is already doing,” Foster says. “We want to know what is already in place so we can build on existing systems.”
The Dalles: Policy changes to support health, wellness
In The Dalles, organizers hope Blue Zones Project will help them change policy related to initiatives already under way in the community health improvement plan. The Columbia Gorge region has had a lot of success with community engagement in creating programs that address issues such as food security, childhood obesity, affordable housing and tobacco use, says Paul Lindberg, collective health impact specialist for Columbia Gorge region.
It is Lindberg’s job, funded by Providence Hood River Hospital through the United Way, to bring groups together and help them find funding for common goals.
“We can create any number of programs and have an impact on people’s lives in the short term,” Lindberg says, “but we’ve come to realize that what we really need to do is change policies at all kinds of levels. That’s where we see Blue Zones Project coming in and really helping us.”
Take childhood obesity. Several wellness initiatives are tackling that community issue, including development of public spaces encouraging exercise, community meals promoting healthy eating, and encouraging restaurants to offer smaller sizes of sugar-sweetened beverages.
“So, we have programs operating, but how do we codify that so it becomes a norm? Do we get the city to adopt a sugar-sweetened beverage tax or policy? That’s where we don’t have the bandwidth right now, and that’s the component where we see Blue Zones coming in and really helping us.”
Complements: Other policy changes that would complement current initiatives include municipal rules for tobacco-free parks, removing barriers that right now limit schools from buying healthy food locally, and creating policies that increase the number of affordable housing units.
A Blue Zones Project designation brings manpower — four full-time staff members are hired from participating communities to direct the work happening there — but the increased access to outside resources is equally as valuable, Lindberg says.
“For us, the benefit is not just the added staff. It’s the connection to data and experts in different areas of interest.
“I am convinced we can move far enough upstream to change conditions that are creating issues in our area,” Lindberg says, “and Blue Zones Project will help us do that.”