Blue Zones says Fort Worth’s in good shape to get fit; now what?

Posted Sunday, Aug. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Blue Zones project, which helps communities implement lifestyle changes based on lessons learned from communities worldwide where people live longest, is moving forward with Fort Worth after a two-week assessment found that the city is suited for the program.

That’s the first step.

Over the next two months, community leaders will meet to hash out who’s interested, what projects they want to pursue, what staffing would be necessary, what the costs could be and where to start, said Barclay Berdan, senior vice president of Texas Health Resources, which footed the $500,000 bill for the assessment and has taken the informal lead with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

“We have a lot of momentum going,” Berdan said in an interview. “We don’t want to let this sit. We need to move it forward.”

Blue Zones — headed by the bestselling author Dan Buettner and aided by Healthways, a Tennessee consulting company already under contract to THR to identify predictors of chronic illness — ran more than 40 meetings during the two-week assessment, Berdan said.

That included confabs with policymakers, major employers, healthcare concerns, churches, schools, grocery stores and restaurants.

The leadership group is compiling the findings and will put out a report soon, Berdan said.

It’s not clear yet what kinds of projects will emerge, but they’ll be aimed at making Fort Worth happier, healthier, more liveable and more engaged, driving up workplace productivity, pushing healthcare costs down, and helping brand Fort Worth as an ideal place to live, work, play and run a business, leaders said.

Fort Worth would be pursuing certification as a Blue Zones community based on various criteria.

“The Blue Zones brand is a big deal,” Mayor Betsy Price said. Blue Zones projects have already demonstrated significant outcomes in other cities, such as drops in obesity, she noted.

“The economics from this are incredible,” she said.

The Blue Zones assessment drew some skepticism by local people worried about whether Fort Worth would attempt any health-related mandates. One West Coast city that joined the Blue Zones program put the clamps on the expansion of fast-food restaurants.

Local leaders said that’s not on the plate for Fort Worth.

“The Blue Zones approach is attractive because it’s a coordinated, community-wide effort to bring about systemic change through involving the business community and others in a voluntary way, not a regulatory way,” Bill Thornton, the chamber president, said.

“People don’t really want to be told what to do,” Price said. “But this is not about telling people what to do. It’s about offering a menu with options.”

Skeptics have also worried about how much programs will cost and whether scarce public resources could be diverted, and wondered why Fort Worth can’t put ideas into place outside Blue Zones.

Price said the conversation about Fort Worth’s livability is already part of debate on the city’s planned $292 million May 2014 bond election, in components such as sidewalks and bike infrastructure.

“You’re not going to have an impact on the overall well-being of the community doing this one household and one business at a time,” Berdan said.

Teaming with the National Geographic Society, Buettner has identified five areas worldwide with high numbers of centenarians: Sardinia; Okinawa; the southern California city of Loma Linda; Ikaria, Greece; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.

What they have in common: physical and social activity, high vegetable and low meat consumption, strong family ties, friendships and social networks, strong sense of purpose and strong connections to faith-based communities, Buettner said.

Communities in California, Iowa and Minnesota have implemented Blue Zones. Fort Worth would become the largest individual city to tackle it.

Three beach towns around Los Angeles adopted master plans that included construction of a pedestrian corridor along the main commuting routes, and banned smoking at beaches and other outdoor areas. In the workplace, 134 employers changed policies and programs. Forty two restaurants changed their menus to “encourage people to eat better – mindlessly.” And 10 schools instituted “walking school buses,” with adults leading groups of children on daily walks to school.

In Albert Lea, Minn., after implementation of Blue Zones programs, life expectancy increased, participants lost 12,000 pounds, and workplace absenteeism and health care costs fell, according to Blue Zones.

Scott Nishimura, (817) 390-7808 Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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