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Going for the blue in 2012

NORTH LIBERTY– Making a New Year’s resolution is one thing.
Making a public, three-year commitment to help make the entire community healthier, happier and stronger is another thing all together. But that is exactly what North Liberty is prepared to do this coming new year.
North Liberty is collaborating with the cities of Iowa City and Coralville to submit an application to earn Blue Zones designation, part of Iowa’s Healthiest State initiative.
The cities are now asking citizens to learn what Blue Zones is about and demonstrate their support with an online pledge.
What is Blue Zones?
In 2010, Iowa was ranked as the nation’s 19th healthiest state on the Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index, which tracks six areas of overall wellness. Hawaii emerged as number one in the 2010 rankings, followed by Wyoming (2) and North Dakota (3). While Iowa’s showing at number 19 is better than half of all the rest, it wasn’t good enough for Governor Terry Branstad, who launched a privately-led, public initiative to bring Iowa up in the rankings, with a goal of being number one by 2016.
Taking a cue from other successes, the Healthiest State initiative is incorporating a component called the Blues Zones Project. Sponsored by Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Healthways, the project invites Iowa’s communities to apply to become a Blue Zones town, and receive state resources to help increase healthy practices among their residents. Of the 84 communities that expressed interest in becoming Blue Zones, 58 were approved to move forward into the next phase of application. North Liberty, Coralville and Iowa City are applying together as one area, as the three cities have a history of collaboration and cooperation on policies and practices that affect the Corridor as a whole. Ultimately, just 10 Iowa communities will be chosen for the designation.
The project is based on the best selling book “Blue Zones” by Dan Beuttner, a National Geographic writer who studied cultures in different parts of the world where people live longer, experience lower rates of illness and lead more contented lives. From his travels and through working with anthropologic researchers, Buettner distilled nine habits of the world’s healthiest societies and shares them in his book.
Albert Lea, Minn., became the first Blue Zones prototype community in the U.S. in 2009, instituting its citywide “Vitality Project.” Ten months later, the statistics were in: those who participated added 3.2 years to their lives and lost an average of 3 pounds each; more than 700 people joined walking groups for exercise and social contact; nearly 1,000 people took part in workshops aimed at helping them find their purpose in life; and two-thirds of local restaurants added food to their menus that increase longevity, among other positive outcomes.
It’s not a gimmick but an environmental change
Buettner and the national Blue Zones organization say the changes are not the result of deprivation diets or strenuous exercise regimens, but are born of simple, cost-free habits that are easy to implement into everyday life.
“The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms,” Buettner writes. “Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.  They live in places where they can walk to the store, to their friend’s house or places of worship; their houses have stairs, they have gardens in their yards.”
The same was found by North Liberty resident Jennifer Fuhrman, who attended an open house in North Liberty hosted by the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce to learn about North Liberty’s potential as a Blues Zones community, and how she could become a part of the movement.
“I have been trying to live it,” said Fuhrman. She parks farther away when at the grocery store, takes the stairs instead of the elevator and makes extra trips when putting away laundry, among other things. “They are very simple things that seem tiny, but if you do them every day, they add up and make a huge difference. It becomes an easy habit.”
Rebecca Neades, Vice President of Public Policy for the chamber, moderated last Wednesday’s open house at the North Liberty Community Center. Neades said the initiative makes economic sense for the community.
“We are on a trajectory of sharply rising health care costs,” she said, a path that is unsustainable. In Albert Lea, employers saw an average drop of 21 percent in absenteeism and city employees showed a 49 percent decrease in health care costs.
How does this area become part of Blue Zones?
Neades said there are a number of great things each of the three communities, and Johnson County as a whole, has to offer that promote healthy, happy lifestyles, from various support groups to free exercise facilities to school programs that teach better snacking and movement as a way of life.
“I just don’t think we communicate well to other groups about all the things we already do,” Neades said. If the Blue Zones designation is approved for this area, one of the benefits is funding for a full-time staff person to help coordinate the effort throughout the three communities. The Blue Zones organization will also provide on-going training in best practices and expertise in making the project sustainable and measureable.
For now, though, Neades is asking for help at the grass roots level.
“We need people to learn about the project, and go online to make the pledge,” she said. While the application is not judged based on how many citizens sign up, Neades said a lack of pledges could be a disadvantage. Anyone in Johnson County can take the pledge, not just residents of the three applying cities.
Neades also made a plea for people to start talking about the Blue Zones project, and share their own ideas for ways to increase health, longevity and happiness.
“We want people to help identify what works for them,” said Neades. “It will be different for everyone and each community. Think about what you are passionate about and spread the word.”
Visit the website at bluezonesproject.com. To pledge, click on the Support Your Community link.