Brand Story - Meet two local communities where the healthiest choices are also the easiest
Imagine if you lived a healthy lifestyle by accident — staying nourished, active, connected and fulfilled with little effort? Blue Zones Project® by Sharecare creates environments in which healthy choices happen by default. With nearly 60 participating communities in North America, the initiative’s powerful effects are leaving Oregon’s cities transformed.
From Costa Rica to Japan, five specific regions boast the world’s longest living and healthiest residents. Extensive studies of these so-called blue zones have cracked the code on healthy societies, resulting in a blueprint that is being repeated across the U.S.
Oregon, on a mission to become one of the nation’s healthiest states, reached out to Blue Zones Project in 2015, impressed with its success in Iowa. Thanks to funding from Cambia Health Foundation, the state launched its first Blue Zones Communities® in Klamath Falls, selected due to its consistently low health rankings.
“Blue Zones Project came to town and provided structure on how to implement changes in our community,” explains Merritt Driscoll, executive director of Blue Zones Project-Healthy Klamath. “You can see and feel the changes that have occurred as a result.”
In five short years, smoking has decreased by 24% in Klamath County. Obesity has dropped by 14% and sense of safety has jumped by the same amount, with community pride up by 15%. Health risks, such as stress, poor nutrition and lack of exercise have all seen a decrease. Between 2015 and 2018, the city saved more than $900,000 in medical- and productivity-related costs and won roughly $1.5 million in grants between 2018 and 2021.
After undeniable success in Klamath Falls, the state opened the initiative up to three more communities, including Roseburg and the Umpqua Valley, whose transformation paints a similar picture.
“Blue Zones Project provides a really clear framework of the different criteria you should meet,” says Jessica Hand, executive director of Blue Zones Project, Umpqua. “It uses a comprehensive approach to community health, touching every sector at the same time. It has a powerful ripple effect. When everyone in the family is hearing about it out in the community and going home and talking about it, it spreads like wildfire.”
Though timelines vary by region, the first six to nine months of the partnership comprise the planning phase.
“We do an assessment of the community for readiness, both in the ability to fund the project and in the willingness of key partners to participate fully, from the public health department to the governmental municipality to the city manager,” says Terri Merritt-Worden, vice president of operations, Blue Zones Project. “It requires significant partnership in the community, and we want to make sure they’re ready.”
A public kickoff event then marks the beginning of the implementation phase: three or more years focused on bringing measurable changes by leveraging people, places and policy.
When researching the original blue zones, National Geographic Fellow and multiple New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner and his fellow researchers recognized specific lifestyle patterns, dubbing them the Power 9®:
- Move Naturally: Natural daily movement rather than exercise
- Purpose: A reason to get up every morning
- Down Shift: Routines that de-stress
- 80% Rule: The habit of eating only until 80% full
- Plant Slant: A diet based more on vegetables than meat
- Wine@5: 1-2 glasses of wine per day with friends or food
- Belong: Participation in faith-based community
- Loved Ones First: The prioritization of family
- Right Tribe: A social circle that supports healthy behaviors
Taking the lead from the communities themselves, Blue Zones Project helps to transform community environments — from the grocery store to the classroom to the worksite — so that the Power 9 become part of daily life, always with the goal of making healthy choices the easiest choices.
In restaurants that may mean redesigning menus or dishes to make healthy choices unavoidable. Simply removing salt from the table or bringing bread only upon request changes what guests consume by making the unhealthy option less convenient. Similarly, Blue Zones Project Approved™ grocery stores prioritize health by displaying nutritional options; for example, by replacing candy in checkout aisles with fruit.
Klamath Falls, an agricultural community, reimagined its food systems by launching an online farmers market in 2017, fortuitous timing given what 2020 would bring. The farmers now own and run the platform, selling products year-round directly online.
To increase access to healthy food in Umpqua, the team established community gardens — in schools, places of employment and neighborhoods — bolstering food security, gardening skills and social connections.
Since Blue Zones Project aims to impact multiple areas of a person’s life at once, employer buy-in is essential.
“We’ve had great success with our worksites here in Umpqua Valley. Nineteen of our twenty largest employers are participating,” Hand notes. “Some are creating more social opportunities, like worksite cooking classes or walking groups. We are also running work-site wellness challenges and community volunteer days to help create a strong sense of purpose while boosting community pride.”
2,747 employees have been impacted by these well-being best practices at Approved Worksites, with 2,116 actively participating in a Blue Zones Project program or taking the Personal Pledge to Well-Being. The creation of worksite wellness initiatives resulted in the engagement of more than 150 individuals serving on 14 new employer-led wellness committees. Additionally, 14 employers have now adopted smoke-free campus policies.
Douglas County tends to occupy the bottom of state health rankings, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings. However, in just over three years, the Health Behavior scores impacted by Blue Zones Project jumped from 29th to 23rd place. Between 2017 and 2019, the region saved approximately $1.5 million in medical- and productivity-related costs and won roughly $7 million in grants between 2017 and 2021.
The initiative’s focus on policy paves the way for these fast results.
“Our policy work that improves walkability and bikeability is what makes the Power 9 easier to implement in communities,” Merritt-Worden explains. “Both of these communities have created safe routes to schools and put in more bike trails and signage.”
In Klamath Falls, Blue Zones Project worked with the city to fund and install a protected bike lane that connects to a low-income neighborhood with high rates of chronic disease. The goal is for the route to eventually link to one of the city’s largest parks.
These policy changes span transportation, education, public spaces, food quality and beyond. For example, the Joint Use of Facilities Agreement, adopted by both Klamath Falls school districts, supports the use of school grounds as after-hour parks. The dozens of policy changes include significant new tobacco guidelines: tobacco-free city parks and events, tobacco retail licenses and a minimum purchasing age of 21.
Both Klamath Falls and Umpqua have reached phase two, meaning they are steered and financially supported by local entities.
“But the Blue Zones Project network is still available to us as a resource. We talk to other communities across the country regularly,” Hand adds. “It’s fun to learn from one another.”
Becoming certified communities means that they have achieved significant improvement in well-being and have decreased key risk factors associated with chronic disease, but neither show any signs of slowing down.
“We plan to continue on for eternity,” Driscoll concludes. “Becoming a certified Blue Zones Community is a tremendous achievement, and it’s incredible how the community has worked together to get here. We’ll continue to move forward.”
Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues. The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.