Living longer, better- The Blue Zones makeover team
Last August, when explorer and author Dan Buettner put out a call to arms he hoped would reach some of the more unhealthy people living in the Beach Cities, his message was: “We want you.”
Buettner had something he wanted to give the people who answered this call: more years to live. He intended to apply the principles he’d learned spending time with the longest-living, statistically happiest and healthiest people on the planet, those who live in the “Blue Zones” areas he’d investigated in his bestselling book of the same name. The Blue Zones Makeover was intended not only to help the people who joined, but to serve as an example in microcosm for the larger Vitality City initiative that intends to help the entire Beach Cities community live longer, better lives.
The results have been sometimes subtle and often dramatic. Mitch Mahood, a 48-year-old man who’d gained 35 pounds over the last seven years, has not seen the dramatic weight loss he’d expected. Mahood lost only about four pounds, but his projected lifespan has increased by an astonishing 27 years, from 57 to 84, through his increasingly healthy behaviors and skyrocketing sense of happiness. Genie Davis, a 55-year-old writer who already ate a plant-based diet, has gained a modest two year jump in her life expectancy, but she has gained something that has no statistical measure – three new close friends. Gavin Galimi, a 38-year-old father of three, saw his 9-year-old son start to follow in his footsteps in a way that frightened him: his son was becoming obese. Galimi has lost 17 pounds, but more crucially, he and his entire family have grown much closer as they eat healthy dinners together most every night and go for walks afterwards. Nancy Fulton Rogers, a 54-year-old television producer, has now been dubbed “Chef Nancy” after leaving behind a financially successful but physically and emotionally draining career to pursue her passion for healthy cooking.
The results have surprised even Buettner.
“I think I was expecting to meet people who were really in trouble, train wrecks, and they are not,” Buettner said. “They are actually pretty healthy and happy people. You know, I can’t show a ‘biggest loser’ change, and that was not really the intent. But what we are seeing is average people – which I think these people are – have shown a remarkable improvement in their health and, more importantly, in how happy they report themselves to be.”
“I’ve learned a lot,” he added. “A lot of what I thought would happen worked, and also a few things I had no idea would come up. What has shocked me is these disparate people are hanging out with no intervention with me…They get nothing for it, they get no promise of money or recognition. They just do it.”
Diane Stapleton hit a turning point in her life this year. She always imagined herself living to be 105, but the way her life was going, she physically didn’t think that was going to happen.
“I didn’t want to be in a nursing home and just live,” said Stapleton. “I want to be mobile for the next half of my life.”
She realized if she wanted to reach her goal age, she would have to fundamentally change the way she was living. That’s when she first saw the email about participating in the Vitality City Blue Zones program.
“It came to me at a great time,” said Stapleton. “They gave me the tools to get to 100.”
She started moving more and joined a walking moai in July. After a few times walking with the group, she realized that it wasn’t just about exercise.
“All the stress of the week just washed away,” said Stapleton, who works a desk job during the day and follows her jewelry-making passion and artistic tendencies at night. “I started changing a lot; I just started moving around more.”
After joining the moai, Stapleton buckled down and decided to incorporate a few more personal-pledge items to her daily life.
“I learned that if I have to be accountable I will do it,” said Stapleton. “Left to my own devices I’ll slide, I need something to force me to do it.
She began the Blue Zones program in late September. Since continuing the program, she has found that she no longer has to force herself to do healthy habits and they are more a way of life than a gimmick.
“I thought the challenge would be working them all into my daily life,” said Stapleton. “Working them in was challenging at first, but in every way it is much more positive.”
Not only did Stapleton join a walking group, she also exchanged her dinner plates for 10-inch plates and only ate until she was 80 percent full, a phrase the Blue Zones Personal Pledge calls “Hara Hachi Bu,” borrowed from Okinawa, Japan, one of the five Blue Zones.
“At night I have a flatter stomach and don’t go into a food coma after eating,” said Stapleton. In the mornings, Stapleton has also noticed an increased vigor for life and higher energy level along with better sleeping cycles and less aches and pains in her joints.
“I was starting to feel old,” said Stapleton. “Something just clicked and I’m afraid not to continue on the program.”
Stapleton has found walking the two flights of stairs to her apartment easier, and has replaced social eating with exercise. The program has also introduced her to other people in the area interested in increasing their lifespan and living a healthy life. She regularly attends potlucks with other participants and invites them to go on hikes with her. She has also seen a change in her body. Without focusing on a diet, she lost seven pounds and has been able to regularly incorporate many of the Blue Zones pledge items into her daily life.
“It ends up being a lifestyle change when done long enough,” said Stapleton. “I was going to have health issues if I didn’t change my life. Most of these things were not difficult to continue.”
Stapleton believes that by incorporating the pledge items in her life she was saved from a future heart attack or stroke.
“I’m telling everybody about it,” said Stapleton. “I can’t say enough good things that they had the foresight like they did to start this program.”
Stapleton thinks that the program was a gift.
“Dan [Buettner] has really found his calling,” said Stapleton. “He’s very inspirational. His encouragement keeps us on track and he really cares and follows up with us. There are so many options; there is something for everyone on the pledge. Everybody can incorporate something into their life. It’s easy to do. I’m honored to be a part of the group and I am 100 percent sure it has lengthened my life. I look forward to that chapter of my life and I know I’ll be more healthy at 100.”
Nancy Fulton Rogers
Nancy Fulton Rogers instinctively knew how to be healthy. She loved cooking healthy foods, she knew a plant-based diet was healthier and she was already a mover and a shaker.
But her high-stress job as a television commercial producer kept her going too fast to stop and think about her priorities. As the 54-year-old prepared for the Blue Zones makeover, she realized she needed to make significant changes, starting with her job. She left behind what by most measures was a highly successful career and focused on taking steps towards living a healthier and more deeply fulfilling life.
“I need goals that are tangible, otherwise I’ll never do it,” said Rogers. “I like organized goals with milestones.”
She, like Stapleton, joined a walking moai and got to know women in her neighborhood she had never met before.
“We talked about eating healthy and world events, not gossipy BS,” said Rogers.
Rogers had always been passionate about cooking, and now she had the time to pursue this passion, enrolling in classes at Le Cordon Bleu. She took a part-time evening job as an assistant for a blind contestant on the MasterChef 3 television show and started hosting her own healthy cooking classes open to the community and other members of her moai and Blue Zones makeover group. She personally focused on how to further develop a plant based diet and started keeping more fresh fruit and vegetables in the house.
“I already had some of the pledge things in place, like having a bike and a dog,” said Rogers. “I just had to prioritize what I have time for and things I want to live by, like decreasing the plate size. I think being associated with a spiritual community was an interesting idea too.”
She also realized an important aspect of the Blue Zones Principals was connecting with family.
“I thought it was an important thing to think about,” said Rogers. “Family is important and a lot of cultures embrace the elderly and bring them into the house. That sat heavy with me because I have aging parents.”
So, after thinking about the next steps to take, Rogers talked to her parents and collected contact information for family members she hadn’t seen or talked to in years. She sent out an email saying that she would love to visit each family member sometime within the next six months. In the end, her family members responded in droves and suggested that they schedule a family reunion. They gathered last month in Sacramento to meet each other, some for the first time.
“It was a weekend of 33 relatives, 6 months to 92 years old, that was relaxed, loving, full of laughter and tears of joy,” Rogers wrote in an emotional thank you note to the Blue Zones team.
“It was really awesome,” Rogers said last week. “This big, wonderful event really was birthed out of the Blue Zones program.”
For Rogers, the beginning of the program was all about healthy living and a focus on food and habits. In the end, she realized it was about people and connections.
“Bottom line is – it’s about the relationships,” said Rogers. “The biggest thing for me was the reunion. I met and reconnected with people I haven’t seen in 40 years, and it was all thanks to Blue Zones.”
Rogers added more than five years to her life expectancy and bumped her health grade from an A- to an A+.
“I really think this program helped her focus on what she wanted from her life,” said Amy Tomczyk, Blue Zones director of outreach and education. “She wanted to reconnect with her tribe, her family…and because of her four generations gathered and had this wonderful time and everyone was so grateful and appreciative of her doing that. She was like a hero.”
Beverly and David Van Dillen
Beverly Van Dillen had already read the Blue Zones book when she came across a newspaper article asking for participants in the Blue Zones Project in early April. She and her husband David were already trying to live a healthy lifestyle by eating better, but what peaked her interest and encouraged her to apply was the opportunity to incorporate the other non-dietary recommendations into their daily lifestyle and connect with other people also interested in changing their lives.
“We’ve been on diets and thought we were being healthy,” said Beverly. “We never really knew what healthy is. There’s more to it than ‘what am I going to put on my plate?’ ”
They had already been eating less meat and drinking red wine at five, but they wanted to do something more.
“We had been practicing the lifestyle to some success,” said David. “The things on the pledge are not that challenging. We picked components we wanted to do… we didn’t want a dog, but we did pick other things.”
David, a 67-year-old mechanical engineer, started tutoring kids in math and incorporated more volunteerism into his life. Beverly, 67 and retired, started working on a community garden as a new hobby. Both are private, quiet people, but they wanted to socialize more and the walking moai and potluck dinners gave them that opportunity. They also attended the Purpose pilot program, a 10-week program focused on helping individuals live a more purposeful life. Stapleton and Rogers were also participants in the Purpose program.
For all, the workshop allowed them to make new, close friends, and discuss life questions they had never explored before. David, who is still working, wants to have a livelihood after retiring and learned that tutoring may be his new path.
“It was a quest,” said David. “Not really about finding your purpose per ce.”
Although Beverly wasn’t able to put her finger on her purpose, she believes that it was the deep questions and strong new friendships that made it worthwhile.
Both decided to attend four worship services, but have not found a permanent place of worship yet. They also eat family dinners with their daughter and her family more often and have lowered their cholesterol by drastic amounts. David has also been able to decrease his weight by almost 40 pounds since 2010, and believes his biggest weight loss and overall health improvement was due to joining the Blue Zones program.
He has increased his life expectancy by almost two years and increased his happiness grade from a B+ to an A. Beverly’s life expectancy didn’t change, but her happiness grade moved radically from a B to an A-.
“It’s about a whole healthier way of life,” said Beverly. “One thing I didn’t realize was how much the social aspect matters. We’re definitely more social now. Through this program we are now hanging out with people we never would have known.”