Blue Zones Gets Underway In Oskaloosa

Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner address attendees to the Oskaloosa Blue Zone kick-off event.

Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner addresses attendees at the Oskaloosa Blue Zone kick-off event.

Oskaloosa, Iowa – It’s not that blue feeling when you’re disappointed, but instead is a new way of looking at making a community healthy.

Even though the kick-off was Monday night at the Oskaloosa High School Gymnasium, the road leading up to that night was a long journey.

When Iowa Governor Terry Branstad took office in 2010, one of his first initiatives was to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation. In an August of 2010 press release, “A centerpiece of the Healthiest State Initiative will be the Blue Zones Project™, through which people will transform their community and live measurably longer. To ignite this change, Wellmark Blue Cross® and Blue Shield® will financially support the transformation of 10 Iowa communities into Blue Zones Communities™ over the next five years.”

Oskaloosa tossed its hat into the ring, along with 83 other communities, for that first round selection by presenting a ‘Statement of Interest’ in October of 2011. Ultimately, Oskaloosa wasn’t chosen in that first round, and then Executive Director at the United Way of Mahaska County Brianne Fitzgerald reported, “While we were hopeful to partner with the Blue Zone Project, we will still continue to work toward making the ideals of the program a reality in Mahaska County.”

In October of 2012, Oskaloosa was continuing to advocate on becoming a Blue Zones Community. The Blue Zones Project team visited at the end of that month, when community leaders, employers, schools and the media gathered at the Musco Technology Center on the campus of William Penn University.

There, the presentation of community readiness, to be a Blue Zones Project Demonstration Site, was made by those representing those various groups. The community got a better understanding at that time of what Blue Zones is.

In January of 2013, Oskaloosa was chosen to be a Blue Zones Demonstration site, along with Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marion, Muscatine, and Sioux City. The six new communities joined thirteen other communities already in the program.

In February of this year, the local Blue Zone team was named, and the group then began setting up their office on the campus of Mahaska Health Partnership. They then started to engage the community in preparation for Monday’s kick-off.

At 5:00 pm on Monday evening the doors to the OHS Gym opened up and a community started to file in to better understand Blue Zones, and how it could impact them in their daily lives. By the evenings end, organizers say that 750 people were in attendance, with approximately 400 of those on hand to hear the speakers.

The evening included a Kids Zone, Cooking Demonstrations, and speeches by locals and Blue Zone Founder Dan Buettner. Buettner is a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author. Buettner began his journey with the Blue Zone concept while completing a cover story for National Geographic on human longevity.

Albert Lea, MN was the pilot program for Blue Zones, where Buettner and his partner, AARP, implemented the Blue Zones principles, and since claim to have “successfully raised life expectancy” and “lowered healthcare costs by some 40 percent”.

Not everyone has been happy with the changes. Oskaloosa City Council Member Jason Van Zetten brought up a concern with the project at the most recent city council meeting. ““Are you guys going to start regulating companies and businesses to do certain things? I got a call that said, ‘I’ve gotta put a burger on the menu now that’s not going to sell.’ So if I want to be a part of the Blue Zone Project, are we going to start changing what they put on the menu?” Van Zetten said.

Oskaloosa Blue Zones Project Engagement Lead Miranda Cummings responded to Van Zetten saying, ““We’re not telling anybody what to do. This isn’t about telling somebody to hop on a treadmill for 30 minutes, or that they have to become a vegetarian. This is providing people with an alternative menu of options.”

Mary Lawyer, Director of the Blue Zones Project in Iowa addressed some concerns about the project. “One of the things that’s often misunderstood about the Blue Zones Project is it’s really about choices.” Lawyer used the example of the personal pledge a person would make.              Lawyer says that of the different choices a person might select from, there are approximately 20 different items they can do if they like. “That’s a choice they can make”, says Lawyer. “They don’t have to do that, but they can do that.”

Lawyer says that is working with municipalities, schools, restaurants, businesses or individuals, “These are choices that can be made. We’re not shoving anything down anyone’s throat.”

Lawyer said that Blue Zones are areas of the world that have the highest percentage of centenarians. Lawyer said it’s places where people are living “long healthy lives” where they are still active.

Lawyer talked about Buettners work when he was commissioned by National Geographic to explore why people lived longer more productive lives in some places around the world. Lawyer said he found nine common things among the 5 locations around the world. Those became the “Power 9″; Move Naturally, Know Your Purpose, Down Shift, 80% Rule, Plant Slant, Wine @ 5, Family First, Belong and right Tribe.

Lawyer said that Buettner looked toward re-engineering our environment to help make the healthy choice an easier choice.

Chef Michael Glesener and Congressman Dave Loebsack cook up stew at the Oskaloosa Blue Zone kick-off event Monday night.

Chef Michael Glesener and Congressman Dave Loebsack cook up stew at the Oskaloosa Blue Zone kick-off event Monday night.

Congressman Dave Loebsack was on hand for the kick-off event by being a celebrity chef.

“This is a really great wellness orientated project,” said Loebsack. “It has a lot to do with how we are as a society in terms of our health measures. It has a lot to do long term also with trying to prevent chronic diseases, which cost society so much money.”

“A lot of this is about personal responsibility,” said Loebsack. “But if folks take the initiative themselves to be healthier, that will save them a lot of money in the long run, and it’ll save our whole society a lot of money in the long run. It will make them more productive citizens at work.”

Blue Zones is about eating more plant based foods and, during his celebrity chef portion of the evening, Loebsack helped to cook up a “Lifelong Stew” with Chef Michael Glesener.

Before the ribbon cutting that was the official start of the Oskaloosa Blue Zones project, Buettner talked about “Americanizing” the aspects of different Blue Zone communities that he explored around the world. “Make them appropriate for Iowa,” said Buettner.

Buettner talked about how making the healthy choice the easiest choice, such as making it easier for people to walk in a community. Being a more social community, and having groups of friends that support each other is another aspect of a healthy lifestyle. In the Blue Zones Project, that social group is called a Moai Walking Group. “They are simply committed social networks that are organized around either walking or eating basically potluck. Blue Zone food potlucks.” Attendees were given a chance to join a Moai as the evening concluded.

At the end of the evening, Buettner gave the nearly 400 people in the auditorium a chance to take the Blue Zones Pledge. “For people who think this is right for them, we have 20 evidence based ways they can get healthier mindlessly,” said Buettner.

The Blue Zones Project will take 18 months in Oskaloosa, and Buettner had a prediction for Oskaloosa. “I would guess this town will weigh about one ton less than it does today. I will add 3,000 years of life expectancy to the population here. The average person here will report 3 to 5 percent higher happiness. I think all those things you’ll see.”

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