BlueZones for WNC’s Blue Ridge?

Monday night was the official kick-off of the BlueZones Regional Initiative first brought to light by Pat and Sallie Taylor.

The BlueZone initiative is about the science of living longer. It involves lifestyle changes on an individual level but also on the community level whereby citizens and policy makers work together to get healthier for good.

In Highlands’ case It’s a regional initiative because to be viable statistically – that is to have enough data to quantify changes. At least 16,000 people have to be involved which means including communities in Macon and Jackson counties.

In his opening remarks, Mayor Pat Taylor said he became interested in the BlueZones concept a few years back.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to create a BlueZones area in our Blue Ridge communities?”

Sally Taylor took the reins and ran with the concept and as chairman of the BlueZones organizing committee has gotten positive feedback from Jackson and Macon county governments as well as citizens in Cashiers, Sylva, Highlands and Franklin.

Enter Tony Buettner, BlueZones co-founder and keynote speaker whose fee was paid for by an anonymous donor.

He described five areas across the world where the majority of folks live active, happy, disease-free lives well into their 90s and 100s. Namely, on the Italian island of Sardinia, Okinawa Japan, Loma Linda, California, Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula and Ikaria, an isolated Greek island.

Though these are relatively small, stress-free communities that don’t live the helter-skelter, stressful lives of most Americans, according to Buettner, whose brother Dan is the writer in the scenario, BlueZones researchers have identified nine common habits or factors in these communities that contribute to the increased longevity and vitality of the residents. 

These are habits that constitute a lifestyle not a fad. They are: moving naturally by walking or bicycling as a daily habit; having purpose which is something that makes you get up in the morning; down-shifting daily by communing with nature, praying, meditating; sticking to the 80% rule which is whole foods and minimum meat; eating plant-based meals; enjoying wine at 5; belonging to the right tribe for you; putting loved ones first; and belonging to a group in the community – faith-based or something else.

The national BlueZones organization has developed a program and strategies to help communities implement these practices with the overall goal of promoting healthy living in all aspects of life with the end goal being less stress, disease, medical bills, etc.

Highlands is ahead of the game in that sidewalks, the greenway trail and accessible hiking trails are ways to promote walking and connectivity in the town – something not all towns have. This promotes “moving naturally through life” which is high on the list toward longevity. 

It also has farm-to-table options at some eateries and restaurants which means whole food options and not processed foods. This is another biggie in the scenario since all processed foods are full of sugar, salt and chemicals – a no-no if longevity is the goal. Interestingly, however, Buettner said the immediate region has 50% more diabetes than the rest of the state.

Participants at Monday night’s presentation were asked to fill out a short survey to determine their interest in moving forward with the initiative.

Unfortunately, most of the people who attended the presentation were over 55 and though Buettner said it’s never too late to get started, the idea is to instill this lifestyle in the younger generation so it’s a life-long commitment that comes naturally supported by a community that offers healthy choices within its “Life Radius” – town, grocery stores, worksites, restaurants, schools and churches.

At this point the organizing committee will analyze the survey information to see if there is support in the region’s communities to move forward as a BlueZones Region. 

If so, experts from BlueZones will conduct an in-depth study of these communities to assess needs and develop strategies for each community in the region. 

This begins with a 2-3 day visit by the BlueZones national team and experts. If the community is ready, they will return in 21-30 days with a site visit readiness report and proposal and will then work with the community and potential funders at which point the decision will be made to continue or not.

Buettner said it is a grassroots process, where people and organizations need to step forward to implement and fund the initiative as a public/private endeavor.

Funders could be organizations like the newly formed Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation whose mission is to promote health in the Highlands and Cashiers communities and who has the money to do so,

If the region is all in and strategies are put in place, in time, Buettner said there will be a measurable increase in wellbeing in the population — lower healthcare costs and claims, improved productivity in the workplace, less tobacco usage, a more active population, a drop in obesity rates, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, and even a boost in economic vitality.

To learn more about BlueZones click HERE.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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