Fort Worth aiming to be healthy city with Blue Zones

02/04/2014 12:41 PM

02/03/2014 7:12 PM

Fort Worth will be one of 20 cities — and the only Southern city — to participate in the Blue Zones Project, a healthy-city initiative based on making good health choices available to residents.

Texas Health Resources paid $500,000 for an evaluation of Fort Worth’s suitability for the program in August, which Fort Worth officials agreed to do. The five-year project will continue to be privately funded, said Laura Van Hoosier, spokeswoman for Texas Health Resources, and she would not disclose the cost of the program or fundraising efforts.

The City Council voted unanimously in January to support the program, and Mayor Betsy Price said it won’t cost the city any money directly. The council will support the program by making policy changes and improvements to “complete streets” infrastructure.

“These are not changes or demands that will be enforced immediately. If you build a new addition, for example, you will build sidewalks. It is a change in mindset to a certain extent, but it fits nicely with our FitWorth initiative,” Price said.

FitWorth, the city’s healthy-city initiative to promote physical fitness and wellness, was launched in September 2012.

Councilman Dennis Shingleton, who made the motion to support the project at the Jan. 28 council meeting, said the project is not something community members should be scared of.

“I know that this Blue Zone Project scares some people and it shouldn’t. We are going to take a bite of this apple that feels comfortable and continue to chew on the apple until we can improve some well-being and some economic vitality to the city,” he said at the meeting.

Blue Zones, headed by bestselling author Dan Buettner and aided by Healthways, a Tennessee consulting company, works to make healthy choices easy for residents.

Local effort

The Fort Worth Blue Zones Project, headed by Julie Wilson, a former executive for Chesapeake Energy in North Texas, will be staffed with about 25 people, said Joel Spoonheim , executive director of community programs for the Blue Zones Project.

The positions are to be filled locally, and the project will need an additional 100 volunteers, Spoonheim said, as officials aim to launch it in the spring.

The goals of the project in Fort Worth include generating savings in medical expenses, lowering obesity and smoking rates, increasing vegetable consumption and increasing physical activity.

To do that, the Blue Zones team will target key areas in the community – schools, restaurants, employers, grocery stores and individuals — to encourage policy changes and enhance healthful options.

For example, Spoonheim said, teams will be available to offer expert advice for restaurants, especially locally owned small businesses, on putting together portion sizes and adding healthful items to menus without hurting the bottom line.

They will also encourage the city to add to the sidewalks, biking infrastructure and public transit systems, and will encourage schools to make simple changes to help students be healthier.

Texas resistance

The study, however, identified several obstacles to overcome during the five-year program, including residents’ long commutes to work and potential resistance to policy changes that are perceived to affect personal liberties.

“There have been questions like ‘Wait, we are Texas. We don’t like being told what to do.’ And here is the simple thing — we don’t tell people what to do. … What we provide you is a menu of best practices,” Spoonheim said.

Price said policy changes the city will consider, such as improving sidewalks, need to be done anyway.

According to the evaluation, the project could save the city and its businesses and residents over $300 million in medical costs in five years and more than $1 billion in workforce productivity. Becoming a Blue Zones-designated city, Price said, will make Fort Worth more attractive to companies.

“It is a huge asset for this community — it is another tool in our toolbox to recruit companies for economic development,” Price said.

Other challenges identified by the study are that the “city’s budget may constrain its ability to implement Blue Zones Project principles,” and also that the city has “underdeveloped” public transportation for “fostering livable neighborhoods.”

However, the study also identified the $292 million bond proposal for thisyear, which has thus far allocated $1.26 million for bike infrastructure, as an opportunity for securing funding for some changes.

National efforts

Iowa was the first state to adopt the Blue Zones Project as part of a the Healthiest State Initiative, a government-endorsed, business-led effort to make Iowa the healthiest state.

Wellmark, an insurance provider to 1.8 million Iowans, is sponsoring the Blue Zones Project in Iowa. Fifteen communities have been selected for the project in Iowa, the first four selected in May 2012.

Doug Reichardt, a member of the board of the Healthiest State Initiative in Iowa and chairman of the Iowa Sports Initiative, said the “jury is still out” on the success of the program.

“We are waiting for the results, so I can’t make a comment yet, but we are hoping it was a great investment,” Reichardt said.

Iowa was ranked 19th in the county in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index when the Healthiest State Initiative launched in 2011. In 2012, Iowa moved up to ninth.

Texas ranks 27th in the nation in the index, which measures life evaluation, physical health, emotional health, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access.

Spoonheim said Fort Worth will face challenges on the path to a healthy lifestyle similar to those in Iowa, such as high consumption of meat and eating large amounts of food.

He said Fort Worth should start seeing measurable results in about two years, though bigger changes will take several years.

“We aren’t going to get all the sidewalks built in the next five years. That’s ludicrous, but we can get the policies in place, we can get people to have an understanding and an appreciation for what that investment might make,” Spoonheim said.

Working with the National Geographic Society, Buettner identified five areas where people live longer with lower rates of chronic disease and higher quality of life.

The cities shared high vegetable consumption, physical and social activity, strong family ties and friendships, a strong sense of purpose and connection to faith-based communities.

Communities in California and Minnesota have also instituted the Blue Zones Project.

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