What’s the true cost of an unhealthy lifestyle?
Well, it’s about $3.42 trillion US.1 That’s how much it costs per year to treat chronic and mental health conditions. A lot of those chronic conditions (like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers) are preventable too.
Blue Zones Communities across the U.S. are working hard to change this by rethinking how they can improve their resident’s overall well-being. These communities have joined the Blue Zones Project because they believe that a strong community starts with happy and healthy residents.
How We Can Cure the Healthcare Crisis With Simple Habits
So how did we get to the point of spending $11,582 a person2 just on healthcare?
The everyday habits that we all form have a real impact not just on our bodies but also on the whole country. From eating a poor diet to feeling stressed about money to not sleeping well or getting enough exercise. All of these things slowly build up over time and take their toll on our bodies.
When millions of people face these same issues, it takes an even bigger toll on society. The problem then gets bigger and bigger, until it hits a crisis point.
Now imagine if you could take that $3.42 trillion and instead of spending it on healthcare to treat people who are very sick, you could put it towards things like community centers, community gardens, leisure programs, education, and better urban planning.
Think of how much healthier and happier everyone would be in the first place!
Fewer people would need treatment for chronic conditions because they have better habits, and they aren’t forced to choose between things like eating healthy food or paying the bills. People are less stressed, eat better, are more productive at work, and are able to exercise more.
This cycle starts out small, but grows and grows. And slowly over time, the trend reverses so we’re spending less on treating chronic conditions, and more on preventing them from ever happening.
Is all of this even possible, or is it just too late?
Not only is it possible, it’s already starting to happen across the country.
Is the trend to a healthier society taking shape in your community?
Why Blue Zones Projects Work So Well
It’s so easy to choose cheap fast-food over healthy, whole foods when there’s a fast-food joint around every corner, but the closest grocery store is miles away.
When is there time to be active when you have a long commute every single day, or you have to work several jobs just to make ends meet?
You’re too tired and worried about feeding your kids and paying the bills.
These are the everyday struggles that millions of people face. These struggles turn into those chronic conditions that are costing the economy way more than they should.
So how do you change this vicious cycle? Well, you go back to the basics. You create an environment that offers the choice of healthy foods, social bonding, exercise, and other healthy habits in the first place.
This is the idea behind a movement called the Blue Zones Project.3 Supporters believe that “rather than relying on individual behavior change, Blue Zones Project focuses on creating surroundings that default to healthier behaviors.”4
If communities are designed with wellness in mind, it’s easier for people to make healthy choices.
The Blue Zones Principles
“Blue Zones”5 is a term coined by researchers that found 5 places on Earth where residents live longer and are way healthier than the rest of the world. In these places, living to age 100 is common and they have far lower rates of chronic disease.
How do they do it? By taking a holistic approach to living and to life. It’s not only about eating right, or exercising, or being social. It’s about putting all of those things together that make the difference. Researchers call these habits the Power 9.5
The Power 9 are:
- Move naturally (low-intensity exercise)
- Downshift (think winding down or relaxing)
- Purpose (in life)
- 80% Rule (don’t eat until you’re full)
- Plant slant (eat mostly fruits, veggies, and beans)
- Wine at 5 (my personal favorite! A moderate intake of wine is ok)
- Right tribe (meaningful social connections)
- Loved ones first (take care of aging parents and growing children)
- Belong (to some sort of faith-based community)
The organization Blue Zones6 works with local policymakers, businesses, schools, and community organizations. Together they come up with new policies and simple changes to how you live, work, and play.
These Blue Zones Projects started over a decade ago. Since then they’ve spread across North America, and with awesome results.
The Blue Zones in America – Healthy Habits Made Simple
Loma Linda, California
One of the original 5 Blue Zones, Loma Linda, California really stands out from the rest of the country. On average, its residents live about 10 years longer7 than other Americans, and they have lower rates of chronic diseases8 like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
How can their community of about 9000 people be so different from the rest of the United States?
The faith-based community eats a diet full of fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, and very little meat. They don’t smoke or consume alcohol, they make time each week to rest, and do some low-intensity exercise. These simple daily habits play a huge role in our physical health.
Being social plays a big part in their health and happiness too. They support and encourage each other, and they volunteer their time to help those in need. This gives them a sense of purpose in life and a sense of belonging, which is vital to our mental health.
Albert Lea, Minnesota
When the first Blue Zones Project started in 2009 Albert Lea, Minnesota was in desperate need of change. The city was hit hard by the economic crash, and the cost of healthcare was rising partly because of poor health habits.
Albert Lea was determined to change its ways. As the very first Blue Zones Project city9, it had an amazing opportunity in front of it.
Taking a holistic approach, the Project worked with local government, schools, and businesses. Policies changed to revitalize the downtown core, provide “income-limited” housing, and curb smoking.
The city added more walking and biking trails and connected existing trails and sidewalks to make them safer. Parks and community gardens were expanded so people could get outside, socialize, and have access to fresh produce.
Businesses, schools, stores, and restaurants started to offer healthy, affordable food options. Instead of choosing chips from a vending machine, they could choose fruit. In restaurants, “would you like fries with that?” was replaced with “would you like fruit with that?”.
But did any of this really make a difference in Albert Lea? You bet it did!
A year and a half after becoming the first Blue Zones Project city, average life expectancy grew by 3 years, and the cost of healthcare dropped by 40%.7
Those are stats you just can’t ignore. Alberta Lea is still part of the Project and continues making goals that improve its citizen’s health and the economy. It really is a win-win for the city and for each person living and working there.
The Benefits of Community Blue Zones and How They Help Feed Minds & Bodies
In 2014, Forth Worth, Texas became a Blue Zones Project city. Back then, it ranked as the 185th healthiest city10 out of 190 cities in the US. It had a lot of the same problems that Albert Lea, MN did. High smoking and low exercise rates, high healthcare costs, and poor access to healthy, affordable foods.
Working with Blue Zone, community leaders, and organizations, Fort Worth adopted similar changes to those of Albert Lea. All the changes meet the specific needs of Fort Worth and are unique to its residents.11
For example, zoning rules changed to allow urban farming. And mobile markets can now visit neighborhoods with little access to fresh, affordable produce.
Five years after they started the Blue Zones Project, Fort Worth became the 31st healthiest city in the US. Just another example of how simple changes can make a big difference in your health and happiness.
This is how the cycle can turn itself into something good. It also shows it’s never too late to make changes in your community either.
Community Blue Zones Well-Being Initiatives
A lot of other cities across the United States now see how making real change is possible. In August 2021, the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution supporting Community Blue Zones Well-Being Initiatives.12
Mayors from the 1,400 largest cities in the U.S. all agreed that something needs to be done to fight high healthcare costs and lost economic opportunities. They saw how simple changes can have such a huge impact on cities like Fort Worth (population 918,915).13 How could they not do the same?
When you lift everyone in your community up and give each of them as many opportunities as possible, everyone wins.
The mayors recognize that “physical, mental, financial, and social well-being are interrelated and the best holistic approach includes all these elements”.12
They also point out that happy and healthy students and workers are more focused and productive. The same goes for consumers who spend more and boost the economy.
The resolution says that happy and healthy communities “have lower healthcare costs, vibrant economies, and thriving workforces”.12
Now, who doesn’t want that?
So far there are 56 communities and 4,823 organizations that are part of the Blue Zones Project.3
What’s Your Part in the Blue Zones Community Initiatives?
When you really think about it, the root cause of most problems is usually pretty basic. Trillions of dollars spent on healthcare come down to not giving everyone access to the basics of human life.
Things like feeling safe when walking, access to clean drinking water, time to rest and help each other, and food security. These are the things that make us all thrive. When these things are taken away it hurts us all in the end.
In 2018, 14.3 million14 households in the U.S. were food insecure. Racial and gender inequality also plays a big part in the lack of access to affordable, healthy foods.
So how do we change this? By starting at the beginning, and making sure that we give everyone the chance to feed themselves and their kids with fresh food. They’ll feel empowered that they have the chance to be happy and healthy.
Get Involved – Make Your Community Happier & Healthier
Find out if your city is taking part in the Community Blue Zones Well-Being Initiative. If it is, get involved and see what kind of positive change you can make in your community.
How can you give more people access to fresh, healthy food? Urban gardens and mobile markets are great ways to do this. They also give residents a chance to socialize and connect with each other and feel a sense of belonging to their community.
If your city isn’t part of the Community Blue Zones Well-Being Initiative, you can still take the ideas behind the movement and apply them to your community. Help to create an environment of healthy habits, and make it easier for people to choose the healthier path.
How are you going to help your community become happier and healthier? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments, so we can all learn from and help one another.