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Parks and recreation can incorporate Blue Zones® practices to cultivate healthy communities
In Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, the average life span of residents significantly exceeds that of the rest of the world. While many may wonder what their secret is, the answer is really quite simple: these communities have integrated specific health and wellness practices into their daily lives.
Thanks to research by Dan Buettner, Michel Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pes, these areas came to be known as “blue zones,” named for the color of pen used to circle locations on the map that they found were home to the highest number of centenarians. As park and recreation departments work to bring health and wellness benefits to their communities, lifestyle characteristics of these five areas and the ways in which they are carried out can serve as case studies for ways to implement healthy practices within our communities.
Creating Blue Zones Communities
Since conducting his research, Buettner founded a for-profit organization, Blue Zones®, and its initiative — Blue Zones Project® — that aims to help communities across the United States make healthy choices easy by improving the built environment and implementing new policies and practices based on findings from the original blue zones communities. Two areas that have taken on this initiative are Hawaii and Walla Walla Valley, Washington. In Hawaii, the program has been running for seven years, and seven communities across the state — including Kapolei, Makiki and Kahului — have become Certified Blue Zones communities. “What that means is we’ve really put in the work to help the community improve their well-being, and we’ve reached the tipping point for long-term well-being change,” says Lisa Delfin, statewide operations manager for Blue Zones Project – Hawaii.
“When a community is first starting out, there is a selection process…. One of [the qualifications] is having strong leadership that wants this for their community,” she says. “We look at a community holistically, and we look at things within a five- to 10-mile radius of where an individual lives — we call this a life radius. Within that life radius of where people live, work, play and pray, we work with different sectors…like schools, work sites, restaurants, different organizations, clubs and faith-based groups. Then we work on food policy, tobacco policy and the built environment to really lay that foundational policy support to make sure that it’s long term and not just something that’s temporary.”
Rebecca Thorpe, engagement lead for Blue Zones Project – Walla Walla Valley, also emphasizes the importance of working across all community sectors to ensure sustainable change. “[Blue Zones Project] encounters the whole community rather than an individual, because it’s hard for an individual to make change when their surroundings don’t support it,” she says. “What we do is we try to create a way in which the surroundings can support healthier choices.”
There are myriad projects, programs and practices promoted by the Blue Zones Project, many of which overlap with the services provided by park and recreation agencies, such as physical fitness programs, nutrition classes, creating green spaces and more. One core practice that many Blue Zones communities adopt is that of finding your purpose through purpose workshops. “Being connected and feeling like you are contributing and knowing your ‘why,’ or knowing your purpose, [are] probably the most important [aspects] of health and wellness, even above exercise and diet,” says Thorpe.
Another related yet unique practice is that of developing “moais,” or social support groups. According to Thorpe, “moai” is a word from Okinawa, Japan, that means people coming together for a like purpose. “In their community, children were put together at a very young age…and their moai would grow up together.” In Walla Walla Valley, the moais consist of walking groups, “but it’s more about the social connection than it is about moving, even though moving is really important,” she says.
In Hawaii, one primary focus for creating healthier communities has been creating safer streets to improve walkability and bikeability. However, in addition to ensuring there are safe walking and bike paths, they also have taken a creative approach. “We do projects like painted bulb outs [curb extensions]. It creates a focus on the street where people naturally slow down when they see it…[which] makes it safer for people to cross,” says Delfin. What’s more, she says safe streets lead to opportunities for students to take part in walking school buses, or groups of children walking to school together with the guidance of adults. Similar to the moais, this fosters both natural movement and social connection.
Across the board, the projects and programs advanced by the Blue Zones Project are rooted in the Power Nine® — nine practices that are important to integrate into daily life, in order to enhance overall health and wellness.
Assessing Community Need
While all communities can benefit from health and wellness practices, the specific needs of any given community vary widely. In order to determine how they can best help to improve well-being within a community, Blue Zones Project staff work directly with community leaders and members to first assess what types of projects and programs the community could most benefit from and are most interested in participating in.
“As communities are selected, there is a discovery phase that we go through to try and see and assess what’s happening in the community — what areas are their strong suits and what areas need most help and improvement,” says Delfin. “We will hold focus groups in the community and invite everyone to come and have a say in what they want to see done with this project. That’s usually where we find the leaders in that community as well, besides the elected officials. Doing those focus groups, you identify: ‘Who are the key players in the community? What are the immediate needs that they want to see happen?’ and ‘How can we help them with that?’”
Thorpe explains that in Walla Walla Valley, they begin by addressing the health and wellness of the people who work for the city and will be the ones to implement well-being practices long term, such as park and recreation professionals. “We’re trying to create some nice programming and policies within their work sites, so that they feel more supported and healthy,” she says.
In addition, Thorpe says to assess community need they also go straight to the source — the residents — and communicate in the ways that those community members are most comfortable interacting. “We do two things. We work with a lot of community partners. [These] are boots-on-the-ground people who are talking to our friends and neighbors every day…. And we, actually, walk the neighborhoods with fliers and talk to people,” she says. “When they see that you’re going to them and that you’re asking, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ there’s a lot more reciprocity. They get invested and they’re like, ‘I’m going to be invested in this because they’re invested in me.’”
Making Health and Wellness a Reality
“What I’ve learned is that there is no big secret, you know, it’s quite simple,” says Delfin. “It’s just, communities have a difficult time putting everything together, and that’s where Blue Zones Project comes in. We bring everyone to the table, we build that bridge, so everyone’s talking together, and we help to streamline a lot of things.”
What’s more, Thorpe says that any community can start taking steps today to either begin or improve their health and wellness journey. “Doing a Blue Zones Project is awesome, and I recommend it for any community. But if there’s a community that isn’t ready…there are still things you can do. Parks and rec can be a huge part of that, too. They can do these kinds of projects,” she says.
Though not every community will become a Certified Blue Zones community, each has the ability to implement many of the evidence-based practices learned through Blue Zones research and case studies. What’s more, park and recreation professionals already operate within the center of communities, making them perfectly situated to promote these practices widely.
Lindsay Hogeboom is Associate Editor and Writer for Parks & Recreation magazine.