Every morning, Cynthia Lee laces her tennis shoes and meets neighbors for a 40-minute stroll through their Morningside neighborhood.
Walking is at the center of what Lee considers a life transformation. In just a few months, her arthritis has improved, and she has met neighbors and maintained her weight.
Lee credits the change in her health to Blue Zones, an ambitious experiment that aims to improve the health and well-being of Fort Worth.
“This isn’t about reaching a certain weight,” Lee said after a recent morning walk. “I am 64 and beginning to think seriously about my health. This is about making a transformation and getting the maximum out of the rest of my life.”
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Civic leaders hope thousands more will follow suit. To achieve that goal, the leaders are investing some $50 million in private funds to transform Fort Worth into a national model of health and wellness.
Launched this year, Blue Zones is gaining momentum. Restaurants and grocers are offering more healthy options, like freeze-dried fruit and quinoa salads. Businesses are boosting their wellness programs, and nearly 8,000 residents have signed a pledge to improve their own health.
By 2019, community leaders hope to show that residents eat more fruits and vegetables, weigh less, smoke less, feel more connected to their communities, have a greater sense of purpose and ultimately live longer, healthier lives.
“Blue Zones is about taking a holistic approach to our health,” said Mayor Betsy Price, a cycling enthusiast who created Fit Worth, a citywide fitness campaign that complements Blue Zones. “Healthy communities are engaged communities. The hardest piece of this is building connections in places where people feel disconnected.”
Finding healthy lifestyles
The term Blue Zones comes from Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow who described pockets around the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives.
In Ikaria, Greece, for example, people live on average eight years longer than Americans, experience 20 percent less cancer and half the rate of heart disease, and suffer almost no dementia. In Central America, people of Nicoya, Costa Rica, are twice as likely as people in the U.S.to reach a healthy age 90.
Through his research, Buettner identified nine shared traits of people who live in these Blue Zones, which are now the central tenets of the project. They include eating a plant-based diet, leading a naturally active lifestyle and living a purposeful life.
Buettner first brought the concept to Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town of about 18,000. In just one year, participants added an estimated 2.9 years to their average lifespan, and healthcare claims for city workers dropped 49 percent.
Blue Zones, a partnership between Buettner and national wellness firm Healthways, has launched in 20 cities in California, Iowa, Oregon and Florida.
Fort Worth is by far the largest city — and first in Texas — to implement Blue Zones. Brought to the city by Texas Health Resources, it is being funded by a hodgepodge of private and corporate donors, including BNSF, Lockheed Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.
Stakes are significant. One-third of the city’s school-age children are considered obese. From 2001 to 2011, the number of obese women in Tarrant County rose 9.5 percent, according to the national Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The number of obese Tarrant County men jumped 8.8 percent.
A community’s health correlates directly to economic development, Price says.
“Prospective employers looking at Fort Worth ask about our education and the health of our community and workforce,” she said. “We know that productivity increases in a healthier workforce, and one of the biggest expenses a company has is healthcare for its employees. This is absolutely about economic development.”
‘Making simple changes’
To measure the results, Healthways will work with Gallup to provide an annual well-being index of Fort Worth residents. In the first index, taken before Blue Zones launched, the city lagged behind Texas and the rest of the country, said Suzanne Duda, who is overseeing the project.
In the first few months of operation, she said, the response to Blue Zones has been positive, particularly in the central part of the city, where independent restaurants and walkable neighborhoods flourish.
The idea of Blue Zones immediately appealed to Tim Woody, pastor of the downtown church City Life Center. Working with Blue Zones, the mayor has engaged the faith community, as one of the nine principles is attending some sort of faith service.
Then in March, Woody was exercising when his hand went numb. He dropped a barbell. By time he got to his car, his face was numb. Woody had suffered transient ischemic attack, often called a “mini stroke.” Doctors determined that his blood pressure was too high, caused by stress.
Immediately, the pastor decided to downshift, one of the nine principles of Blue Zones. He committed to taking off work one day a week and limiting evening meetings to two nights a week, down from four. His blood pressure soon dropped.
“I am happier than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’m spending more time with my family, and I am convinced I’m going to live longer thanks to those small changes. Blue Zones is all about making simple changes that have a big impact.”
For Lee, who walks every morning with neighbors, signing the Blue Zones pledge signaled the first of several changes. She began making smoothies, reaching for goat cheese instead of the usual cow cheese and chatting with co-workers about the program.
“It’s infectious. You want to do more and more,” she said. “It’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle change.”
Restaurants, too, have played a key role in providing visibility for the project.
‘Healthy foods can be delicious’
One restaurant, Pegaso Mexican Diner, which earned Blue Zones recognition this year, offers Mexican fare like cabbage-wrapped tacos with carrots, zucchini and corn or a poblano pepper stuffed with broccoli and brown rice. Owner Jay Coates said the restaurant’s mission aligned easily with Blue Zones.
Coates, who lost 100 pounds several years ago, said the restaurant seeks to showcase authentic Mexican dishes, which are heavy on vegetables and light on cheese.
“Healthy food can be delicious food,” Coates said. “And if you place healthy, delicious foods in front of customers, it’s easier for them to make the right decision.”
That does not mean the Blue Zones implementation has been without pushback.
A handful of work sites, including Higginbotham and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, have achieved Blue Zones approval by encouraging employees to take exercise breaks, offering healthy snacks and standing meetings.
Speaking this month at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum at the UNT Health Science Center, Mike Sweet, president of the Food Division of Ben E. Keith Co. which is a Blue Zones-approved work site, said the company did hear from employees once –when the cafeteria swapped kale salad for chicken-fried steak.
Similarly, days after the Tarrant Area Food Bank removed candy from vending machines, Bo Soderbergh, the nonprofit’s executive director, said he found a note on his desk with a message scribbled in all capital letters. It read: “We want our chocolate.”
Blue Zones principles
1. Move naturally. The world’s longest-living people don’t pump iron or run marathons. Instead, their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it.
2. Purpose. Why do you wake up in the morning? Knowing your sensee of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Downshift. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed that stress.
4. 80 percent rule. “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawans say this mantra before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full..
5. Plant slant. The cornerstone of most centenarian diets? Beans. They typically eat meat – mostly pork – only five times per month.
6. Wine. Moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends.
7. Belong. Attending faith-based services four times per month – no matter the denomination – adds as much as 14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved ones first. Centenarians put their families first. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children.
9. Right tribe. The world’s longest-lived people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviors.