After thirty years in public health, and four as a Pilates instructor, I am more than a little intrigued by Beuttner's ideas. He seems to be saying good health dwells not just in the individual, but in our communities. He's certainly not the first person to assert this. I stumbled across a quote attributed to Wendell Berry some years ago that expresses much the same sentiment. "I believe that community--in the fullest sense, a place and all its creatures--is the smallest unit of health, and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms."
What sets Bueuttner apart is he's taking his ideas directly to the street. In a project with AARP, Buettner brought the lessons from the blue zones to an ordinary American town--Albert Lea, Minnesota. After a little less than a year, residents of Albert Lea were seeing positive changes in their health and well being--changes already reflected in lower costs for providing health care to city workers. Now Bruettner is inviting other cities to join what he calls the Vitality Project to see if the blue zone benefits can be transplanted to other American communities.
While I'd love it if my hometown joined Bruettner's initiative, no one needs to wait for official permission to take advantage of--or work to increase--the blue zone characteristics of her community. As a fitness professional I would even argue it is my responsibility to look beyond the confines of my studio for ways to increase the health and well being of my clients. Implementing the larger lessons from the blue zones could improve the health of not only my clients, but their families, and even their neighbors.
For practical application, Buettner condensed the nine common denominators found among the lifestyles of the long-lived people living in blue zones into four principles; move naturally, right outlook, eat wisely, and belong. We can all look for ways to bring these blue zone behaviors into our own lives. Even more important, we should be working together to improve health for everyone by making our communities more like blue zones.
No one will be surprised to learn regular exercise is associated with longevity. But blue zone residents don't belong to fitness centers or employ personal trainers. Instead of exercise regimens, Bruettner's centenarians move their bodies every day in the course of their ordinary activities. Rather than spinning on a stationary bike or running on a treadmill, residents of blue zones do things like walk to work and the store, garden, clean house, swim to catch fish, and knead bread. Compared to most people, they "live rewardingly inconvenient lives," according to Bruettner.
A couple years ago I was forced out of my car by a broken shoulder. This mishap helped me discover how many of my errands I could do on foot. I now walk to the market, to the bank, the post office and the cleaners. I walk to use public transportation accessible from my home. Lucky for me, I live in a safe neighborhood with sidewalks, street lighting, and lots of storefront businesses. I can catch a bus one block from my house and the rapid transit station is just three blocks away. In other words, my environment supports my ability to move naturally.
People who live in less safe neighborhoods without sidewalks, lighting, and public transit are understandably less likely to walk. Parents in such neighborhoods may be reluctant to let their children play outside or walk to and from school. Left to adapt individually to an environment perceived as unsafe, people drive places they could otherwise walk. Expanding public transportation and making communities more conducive to walking are changes that require residents and institutions to work together. This is not something one can change acting alone.
In Albert Lea, the city built and repaired sidewalks. Parents organized 'walking school buses' in which an adult escorts groups of children as they walk to school. About 700 people joined walking groups. People are moving more and getting healthier as a result.
As fitness professionals, we should be involved in community efforts like these to make exercise more accessible to everyone.
Bruettner's second major observation of the centenarians living in blue zones is their serenity. These people do not sweat the small stuff. They take time to enjoy simple pleasures, appreciate the blessings in their lives, and experience satisfaction from the work they do. An apparent elixir of life, waking up everyday with a purpose is not the norm for many of the older adults living in our age-segregated and youth-oriented culture.
Contrast this with the blue zones residents. One of the blue zone centenarians takes the bus each Saturday to the market to buy ingredients and then prepares a big pot of soup which his extended family eats together every Sunday. But Don Faustino's weekly ritual is not a chore, the 101 year-old Costa Rican great-great-grandfather has been doing the same thing every week for 40 years and considers it the highlight of his week.
We may not be able to ensure that every person has a plan de vida like Don Faustino's. We can recognize the importance of purpose in people's lives--particularly the ability to feed one's family-- and work to make sure more people have access to satisfying employment and meaningful volunteer opportunities throughout their lives.
Following the dietary lessons learned in the blue zones has implications both for personal and planetary health. Increasing the space on our plates taken up by plant based foods is better for our bodies and reduces the environmental burden caused by producing food from animals. All things being equal, making the shift to a healthier diet is simple--eat more plants. But things are far from equal.
While blue zone residents prepare and eat the vast majority of their meals at home, only about a third of American homes cook more than one meal a day. Modern schedules put a premium on convenience and the marketplace provides myriad cheap ready-to-eat, microwavable, and fast foods packed with calories and salt but little true nutrition. Many Americans live in "food deserts" where fresh fruits and vegetables are not available, but potato chips and soda are sold on every corner. Even the lunches served in many American schools fail to provide a nutritionally balanced meal.
In other words, to eat a healthy diet in America requires knowledge, time, and money, and can be damn inconvenient. We can join other residents in working to make healthy food choices more convenient; help organize farmer’s markets, limit fast food outlets, encourage businesses that sell fresh foods, and support healthier food at school.
Social isolation shortens lives. Participating in a spiritual community, prioritizing family relations, and feeling connected to a circle of friends are all associated with longevity.
Five years ago my 82 year-old mother couldn’t walk a block without getting short of breath. She has always been plump. Over the years, she tried every diet that came along--without lasting success. Finally, at the insistent of her doctor, she joined an exercise class for seniors.
Two mornings a week she puts on an exercise outfit and heads out to class. She is always eager to see her friends and likes to share the stories the exercise teacher tells about her family. After five years of classes, she knows the routine and admits she could do all the exercises on her own at home. But, she says, it wouldn’t be the same.
Clearly it is regular exercise that has made it possibly for my mother to walk without getting winded right away. She has also lost a few pounds. But it is the social interaction and sense of connection that makes the class important enough to get Mom up and out of the house two times a week, rain or shine.
Sometimes, as fitness professionals, we get to be the catalyst for someone’s healthy choices. We need to remember the warm and welcoming environment we create in our class may be just as important as our brilliant choreography.