Gaining Vitality: how the “Blue Zones Makeover” changed lives
Are you at an age when an “all nighter” means you don’t have to get up to pee? Are you so old that you and your teeth sleep in separate rooms? Well, the bad news is that we’re all getting older and, research shows, we’re all getting older faster. The technical definition of aging – the build up of cellular and molecular damage overtime – happens every time our 30 trillion or so cells replicate themselves, about once every seven years. With our current understanding of the science of aging, there’s not much we can do about slowing this process.
Does this mean we can’t all live longer, better lives?
I found five longevity hotspots around the world. In Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California, Ikaria, Greece, and Nicoya, Costa Rica – Blue Zones, as I call them – people are living up to a decade longer than the people living here in the Beach Cities. Remarkably, these places all followed the same nine lifestyle characteristics. But are those characteristics portable? Can the relatively affluent, consummately American people livingoceansideinSouthern Californialearn from their lessons?
Eight months ago, I wrote an article for this paper, inviting a few select people join me in a “Blue Zone Makeover” – the BZM Team. I was looking for people who tried (and failed) at diets, people who were struggling in some aspect of their lives or people who just wanted to try something new. About a dozen people took the challenge. Among them, Mitch, a businessman who works out of his home, Gavin, a lawyer whose children were growing obese, Pat, an African American entrepreneur, Bev and Dave, a couple on the cusp of retiring, a jewelry designer named Diane, Candice, a mom with teenage kids, and Kevin, a successful venture capitalist living grandly on the Strand. Most of them were overweight, with few friends, and some of them, downright lonely. As shocking as this may sound, they pretty much represent the demographic of the Beach Cities.
I asked the team to adopt a half dozen long-term changes to their surroundings, from a list of 24 evidence-based environmental tweaks. Among them: self-weigh daily (self-weighers weigh 18 pounds less in two years over people who never weigh), use 10-inch plates (occasionally consuming 20 percent fewer calories at meals) and make sure there is a working bike in your garage. These were all pretty straight forward, evidence-based strategies. The theory being that if we could all just burn an extra 100 calories a day, and consume a 100 fewer calories, we’d all lose a about 10 pounds a year.
Propinquity, friendship that emerges when you coax people together – was another dimension to the program. In the world’s Blue Zones people flood into the central square after work, they have committed social circles that assures you’re never completely alone (lonely people live eight fewer years than people with strong social ties), neighbors watch out for each other’s kids. In the Beach Cities, according toGallup, people here suffer from some of the nation’s highest rates of anger, stress and worry. I believe this is because people are abnormally disconnected here: the majority commute to work elsewhere, drive their kids to school and for the most part, don’t know the people living next door. Though the BZ team did not live near each other, I asked them to commit to hanging out together. I remember leaving the first session and thinking: fat chance.
The group got on a conference call twice monthly. I asked them report to each other their successes and failures. People didn’t understand the notion of making long-term changes. They talked about what they ate over the weekend, their walk, or their family issues. I’d gently bring them back to the pledge they made. About a month into the program, I suggested they organize a plant-based potluck dinner and actually meet each other. The first few gatherings were sparsely attended but they picked up speed. I happened to be in town the day of the Super Bowl and they invited me to the fourth Potluck. All but one member of the team attended. I remember looking around at my lively group of new friends, talking, laughing and munching on hummus and black-eyed pea stew. Off to the side, the Madonna halftime showed flickered on TV, unnoticed.
We measured all participants’ life expectancy, Body Mass Index (BMI) and well-being (all tests available at bluezones.com). To my knowledge, everyone lost weight. Candice lost 8 pounds and Gavin has lost 18. The average participant has seen their BMI drop three points. Diane reported a 30 point drop in blood pressure. Average life expectancy for the group has increased by five years and their self-reported well-being scores jumped an astounding 19 percent.
I regard this team as group of friends, but they’ve outgrown me. I’m now pulling away from this team of pioneers to focus on working with this community as a whole. Meanwhile, the bi-monthly potlucks are planned for the indefinite future and Candice just organized a weigh-in email group to keep each other in check.
With the success of this Makeover team, Blue Zones is officially launched in the Beach Cites. We’re hoping to get 20 percent of all residents to emulate the team. The bottom line is that living longer, better requires some effort – setting up nudges and certain inconveniences so you eat better, move naturally and socialize more. These will not slow the aging process down but they will help you avoid the maladies that foreshorten your life. I guess, in a funny way, my goal is to see to it that one day you reach the age when you and you’re teeth are spending the night in separate rooms.
Dan Buettner will be joined by actress Goldie Hawn and members of the Blue Zones Makeover team for a rally on May 2 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Details on the expansion of the Vitality City initiative into the national Blue Zones Project will be revealed at the event. See vitalitycity.com for more details. ER
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