Occupy the ‘Blue Zones’ for a longer life

By John Horchner

Forty-five years before author Dan Buettner popularized the term “Blue Zones” in an article for National Geographic in 2005 that explored five places across the globe where people live incredibly long and happy lives, my father preached many of the principles, such as changing your surroundings if you want to live longer.

Our family’s first apartment was close to the downtown area “so I can walk to the train station.” The next place we had was further out but close enough to the elementary and middle school and even high school “. . . so you kids can walk to school.”

Buettner grew up in St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood and his father instilled in his four boys the same sense that the easy way is not always the best way. In his case, it was trips to the Boundary Waters for weeklong canoe trips and backpacking out West, according to interviews he’s conducted with various media outlets.

The funny thing is my dad’s approach was closer to the big idea that Buettner brought back from his travels to Blue Zones—places where people live the longest. It’s not the heroic gestures but the everyday things like walking to the store, chatting with friends and making healthy food choices that equate to a long and happy life.

Reflecting on my dad’s incessant reminders of the importance of walking or riding a bike for trips to friends’ houses or even trips to the grocery store I see that bike riding would have been easier in a bicycle friendly place like Amsterdam rather than in our small town in New Jersey, which didn’t have bicycle paths.

According to one of Buettner’s blog post on LinkedIn, this is the key longevity secret: “If you want to live longer, don’t try to change your mind, change your surroundings.”

Food, exercise and social relations that add years to your life are all guided by where you live more than the choices you make.

Buettner synthesized these ideas and trademarked the term Blue Zones as a result of his work. His findings are used by the Minneapolis-based organization that he founded to help millions lead longer and happier lives in what they call Blue Zones Projects.

I was pondering this idea one day while biking in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, when I saw Mark Brancel, a local physician out for a barefoot jog. I flagged him down and mentioned the big idea that one’s environment trumps all other factors in determining health and well-being.

He gave me a long look and said, “Unquestionably. With one of many examples being a look at the whole current Covid situation where people are dying in greater numbers in some geographic places than other places . . .”

Brancel added that he’d just completed a book on aging that he intends to share with friends and neighbors. His ideas lean more towards individual choice rather than environment.

While I was working on this article in early fall, I sat down with Ross Jackson, another neighbor of mine, who lived in Denmark five years ago. Jackson is a schoolteacher who lives in St. Anthony Park but has been making trips back to Denmark ever since and may even move there.

Interestingly, Buettner highlighted Denmark as one of four happiness hot spots to profile in his 2017 book “Blue Zones of Happiness” because of its citizens’ high ratings for satisfaction, purpose and environments as they go about their lives. That nation has some of the lowest obesity rates in the world and the highest rates of happiness.

Jackson told me, “A lot of it is biking, but there’s more…the real connection is the built environment.”

Jackson said there are facilities for youth, designed specifically for their needs, so they have places to go after school and be with friends. Preschools are built next to parks or even embedded within them. Some have animals on site.

In the downtown area of Copenhagen, Jackson noticed a preschool with the playground on the roof. He imagines these values are played out throughout the country.

“They see the whole range of childhood activities and try to support it.”

Jackson said he’s impressed with the dedication of the adults he’s met who work with kids. He didn’t think they were necessarily paid a lot.

It’s easy for me to see why Denmark was selected as an example for Buettner’s book. It checks off all the right boxes the Blue Zones Project team espouses—government policies, a built environment, social networks, building design and residents who (especially) have a sense of purpose.

Can these ideas be transplanted and take root here?

Actually, they have. Albert Lea became the first Blue Zones city in the U.S. in 2009, making changes that led to a projected 2.9 years of additional lifespan after just one year of participating in the project.

In 2016, 13 Iowa cities achieved Blue Zones certification and the state’s rank on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index® rose two slots to 14th in the nation.

Today, there are Blue Zones Project places across the country, and the organization Buettner founded seems destined to continue to thrive as long as it brings results.

Rather than wait for city planners to adopt policies that will advance Blue Zones solutions that will “make the healthy choice the easy choice,” as they say on their website, I was wondering what an individual can do to get started today.

It appears Buettner has thought of this. He will be offering solutions anyone can implement, using a four-week challenge that will be published in book form in December of 2021 called the “Blue Zone Challenge.”

Doesn’t this approach sound like using individual will power rather than living naturally in a Blue Zones’ environment?

When I asked Buettner about this in a recent email exchange, he replied: “No, the focus isn’t changing. The ‘Blue Zones Challenge’ is mostly evidence-based ways individuals can shape their environment to favor unconsciously healthy choices.”

St. Paul has many advantages already. Combine it with the ideas gleaned from the Blue Zones, it seems we can all be on our way to helping ourselves and others live longer and happier lives, maybe even to 100 and beyond. 

John Horchner is a writing and publishing professional who lives in St. Anthony Park.

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