A Publication of WTVP

With an internationally recognized brand and effective turnaround strategy, we could show the nation how health “plays in Peoria.”

Ah… it’s February! With the holidays behind us, we’re in full swing accomplishing our new year’s resolutions. The beginning of the year offers an opportunity to take stock of our lives and hit the reset button for greater health, and last month many of us did just that. Bravo!

Anyone who has been around the sun a few times knows that establishing a new habit takes effort (about 30 days of consistent practice, in fact!). When we come through the other side, the taste of victory is sweet. But when we fall off the wagon, as many of us inevitably do, it’s easy to lose hope. As we strive toward our now-not-so-new-year goals, it’s worth asking: How can we develop environments in which healthy choices stick… where we make the healthy choice the easy choice?

Is that even possible? According to Dan Buettner—National Geographic fellow, bestselling author, explorer and researcher for human longevity—the answer is a resounding YES!

Principles of Longevity
In 2010, Buettner embarked on a mission: to identify the longest-lived cultures and regions of the world. He aimed to see if we could “reverse-engineer longevity” by tracking the habits of communities with the highest concentration of centenarians (people living to be 100 or beyond). From this research, he discovered five communities around the globe fitting this description, which he dubbed “Blue Zones.” Located in isolated areas in the Mediterranean, Japan, Costa Rica and Southern California, each of these long-living communities shared nine key principles. In each community, the individuals within it:

  1. Move naturally.
  2. Have a sense of purpose (and live in alignment with it).
  3. Stress less.
  4. Eat less. 
  5. Eat less meat. 
  6. Drink in moderation (or abstain entirely and drink water instead, as do the Seventh Day Adventists in the only Blue Zone in the U.S.). 
  7. Have a tribe/faith community.
  8. Put family first. 
  9. Stay social. 

By incorporating these “Power Nine” principles into daily life, life expectancies have been shown to rise along with feelings of satisfaction and well-being. 

These are all great ideas fit for the beginning of a new year, but how do you take these New Year’s ideals and make them permanent health choices? Moreover, how do you support a city or region in adopting these principles? 

Studies and behavioral experts have confirmed that the environment in which we live exerts a powerful force on us. It makes a greater difference on our lifestyles than we’d care to admit—even more than individual choice or internal motivation. In light of this, how can we change our environment to drive behavior change and improve life expectancies? 

A Powerful Impact
Seeking to address this question on a large scale, Buettner set out with an ambitious goal: to help every city in America incorporate long-lasting changes that “make the healthy choice the easy choice” by reducing environmental barriers to health and well-being. Aided by public health practitioners, medical professionals, legislators, city planners and industry professionals, he has incorporated these Power Nine Principles into Blue Zones Projects in 42 communities across nine states. 

Funded by state and federal grants, local and state institutions, and individual philanthropists, the Blue Zones Project movement encompasses three beach cities in California; 15 cities in Iowa; Albert Lea, Minnesota and Fort Worth, Texas; as well as communities in southwest Florida, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wisconsin. Each project is community-led and designed to unite worksites, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and citizens in working to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to a city’s environment, policy and social networks. “Stealth health” is the name of the game—making it easy for people to incorporate the Power Nine with as little effort as possible.

City leaders across the country (many usually leery of systemic initiatives due to the upfront costs involved) have invited Blue Zones Projects into their cities because of the economic benefits being reported. In Albert Lea, Minnesota, the original pilot city, constituents saw a 48-percent increase in tourism since the implementation of a Blue Zones Project. Smoking rates dropped by 35 percent to less than 15 percent across the population, resulting in a projected $8.6 million in healthcare cost savings for city employers. In addition, the city has seen a 25-percent increase in property values in its downtown area, adding $1 million to its tax base since the project’s inception. 

Taking note of these results, Albert Lea’s insurance carrier offered a 300-percent increase in funds given to the city’s wellness program. Albert Lea has also reported an 11-percent decrease in prescription costs for its school district, marked improvements in well-being (as measured by the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index) and increased levels of community pride. 

If that’s not impressive enough, a Blue Zones Project in California’s beach cities led to a 50-percent decline in childhood obesity rates in one of its school districts, resulting in $8.1 million in follow-on grants. Fort Worth, Texas—the largest Blue Zones Project to date—saw a 31-percent reduction in tobacco use from 2014 to 2018, moving from the bottom of the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index (185th out of 189 cities) to the upper third (58th) in just four years. Within three years of implementing these principles in South Florida, the NCH Healthcare System reported saving $27 million in healthcare costs alone. 

These are powerful results—and the data shows they are long-lasting. That’s because Blue Zones has strategically set itself up to align and connect with current initiatives within local cities. The Blue Zones Project model has been created to support local efforts rather than supplant them. 

Will It Play in Peoria?
This brings us to Peoria. Is a Blue Zones Project viable here? One Peoria citizen already reached out to the organization, making initial contact several years ago. Rich W. Brennan III was a local entrepreneur with ties to area developers who were also interested in the Blue Zones Project. Unfortunately, Rich passed away in 2016, and the correspondence with Blue Zones died with him. But the opportunity remains.

Tony Buettner, vice president of business development for Blue Zones, sees Peoria as primed and ready for such an initiative. “I agree that your community would be perfect, but communities need to lead this grassroots effort,” he explains. 

Over the past three years, the Peoria City/County Health Department has diligently led the charge to gather and analyze health data in order to determine current health priorities in the tri-county region of Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties. The resulting Community Health Needs Assessment and Improvement Plan—and the Partnership for a Healthy Community (Healthy HOI), a joint effort among heads of organizations locally and across states—offers a unified vision for addressing the needs of central Illinois. It has been approved by local health departments and hospitals as a singular plan toward improving health across the region.

The Healthy HOI partnership has named three key strategies for health in individual communities: 1) improve the built environment; 2) increase access to education; and 3) support economic development. A Blue Zones Project would align with these key strategies, bringing community leaders together to gather the “low-hanging fruit” by selecting the policies and initiatives that would best address the city’s greatest needs as defined by the community. The work would be completed by Peoria workers, providing jobs for local professionals.

Because Peoria leaders are already developing a local plan of action, what benefit is there in adopting Blue Zones as a partner in the process? In short, the power of Blue Zones lies in its international brand recognition, its proven success in improving health outcomes, and its ability to attract investors to the area. (In the course of writing this article, a former college classmate of mine, an investment professional in Cleveland, reached out to ask me about expanding their market to Peoria because he recognizes the value Blue Zones brings to a community.) 

A Blue Zones Project would offer the momentum and external resources to roll out the plan and objectives developed by Healthy HOI. In becoming a Blue Zone, Peoria could re-establish its image as America’s test market for innovations in healthcare and improved health outcomes, attracting millennials who are looking to become homeowners. Bringing this project to Peoria would distinguish the city as progressive, health-conscious and financially astute—a great place to visit in the short term, and to live for the long term. 

Health Is Wealth
With our immense human capital and all of our intellectual, health, cultural, educational, environmental, artistic and spiritual resources, Peoria is well-positioned to be a healthy place for all to live. With the support of cultural institutions (like the Peoria Riverfront Museum), the long-standing impact of global corporations (like Caterpillar and Maui Jim), new and fast-growing businesses (such as Bump Boxes and Natural Fiber Welding), and the strong, steady presence of formidable healthcare organizations (OSF HealthCare, UnityPoint Health, U of I College of Medicine, et al.), Peoria can turn the page and tell a new story about an affordable, healthy and growing city for millennials to raise their families and boomers to leave a legacy. 

Numerous local legislators, key administrators and organizational leaders have expressed interest in the Blue Zones Project initiative because they see the economic reward: health truly is wealth. Being an early adopter of the Blue Zone seal of approval would help us retain and recruit an innovative workforce. In the future, this internationally known brand could be a minimum requirement for cities to recruit top talent and employers.

Could 2019 be the year we make health a priority in Peoria, a Blue Zone amongst amber waves of grain? Could it be that this year we commit to establishing ourselves as one of the healthiest, longest-living populations on earth? That’s a vision I want to get behind. iBi

Kari Rauh is a public health researcher, integrative health practitioner, educator and writer from central Illinois.