Blue Zones Project: A chance to improve health and longevity

Wilton resident Beverly Brokaw discusses the Blue Zones Project at the Board of Education's Sept. 6 meeting. — Wilton Educational TV screenshot
Wilton resident Beverly Brokaw discusses the Blue Zones Project at the Board of Education’s Sept. 6 meeting. — Wilton Educational TV screenshot

Five areas in the world have been identified as having the healthiest and longest-living people. What these communities have in common are nine lifestyle habits, which Beverly Brokaw is trying to incorporate into the lives of her fellow Wiltonians through a community-wide well-being improvement initiative called Blue Zones Project.

The Blue Zone Project is an organization that works to transform communities across the United States by helping them adopt healthy lifestyle habits so their residents live longer and have a higher quality of life. There are 42 Blue Zone-certified communities across the United States, and if Wilton gets on board, it would be the first in the Northeast.

The project’s mission is to make healthy choices easier for people through “permanent changes in environment, policy and connections,” according to Brokaw, who discussed the project at the Board of Education’s Sept. 6 meeting.

“It’s about making small changes for big impact,” she told board members, who she encouraged to attend an Oct. 23 community meeting she’s set up with Blue Zones Project representatives at the Wilton High School Clune Center. The project “only works with towns where town leadership is on board,” said Brokaw, who’s invited other town leaders to the meeting.

The community meeting will begin at 7 p.m. and consist of a 45-minute presentation, followed by a Q&A period during which community members can discuss and ask questions about the project and decide if it’s something they’d like to do in Wilton.

The Blue Zones Project was started by National Geographic fellow and bestselling author Dan Buettner after it was discovered the world’s healthiest and longest-living people live in the following places:

  • Okinawa, Japan.
  • Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
  • Ikaria, Greece (Aegean Island).
  • Loma Linda, Calif.

The term “Blue Zone” was originally used by demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain. After identifying that Sardinia, Italy, had the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world, Pes and Poulain highlighted villages of extreme longevity by drawing concentric blue circles on a map and referred to the area inside the circles as the “Blue Zone.”

People in the Blue Zones “live longest” and have “the least incidence of disease” not because they’re “genetically superior,” said Brokaw, but because they live in communities where “the healthy choice is the easy choice.”

The nine healthy lifestyle habits shared by residents of these five areas are:

  • They live in environments that keep them constantly moving.
  • They have a sense of purpose.
  • They put their families first.
  • They stop eating when their stomachs are about 80% full.
  • Beans are the cornerstone of most of their diets.
  • They belong to some sort of faith-based community.
  • They take time to relax, pray, reflect, nap, and other stress-reducing activities.
  • People of all but one of the Blue Zone regions drink moderately and regularly.
  • They chose, or were born into, social circles that supported healthy behaviors.

Brokaw said communities that have already adopted Blue Zone lifestyles have seen “dramatic” and “measurable” reductions in obesity, body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, tobacco usage, and markers for cardiovascular, heart and autoimmune disease, cancer and diabetes; as well as increases in well-being, volunteerism, connectedness and economic vitality.

How it works

The Blue Zones Project isn’t about “telling people what to do” or how to live, said Brokaw — “it’s about tiny little changes” that can make a big, positive difference in a community. For example, Brokaw said, 20% of Wilton’s population would have to take “a personal pledge” to practice the healthy lifestyle habits.

If Wilton decides to participate, she said, a Blue Zones Project team would work with the town to help it earn certification.

The team would help the town choose from more than 200 evidence-based policies and programs that support physical, social and emotional health, according to Brokaw, and also help “coordinate the good works already happening” in Wilton.

Brokaw noted that the Wilton Public School District is “already doing many things” that can help earn the town Blue Zone status, such as organic gardening and its Zero Waste initiative.

The project would be “publicly supported and privately funded,” said Brokaw, and the cost of participating would be up to the town.

According to a document Brokaw shared with the education board, Blue Zone-certified municipalities gain access to millions of dollars in funding that “would otherwise not exist if it weren’t for the focus on health, wellbeing and sustainability.” The funding is “typically in the form of federal, state and local grants, as well as private and corporate gifts and investments.”

Another perk of participating, according to Brokaw, is that Wilton could be locally and nationally recognized as a town that invests in the health and well-being of its residents.

To learn more about the Blue Zones Project, visit bluezonesproject.com.

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