The Vitality Quest

blue zones

Explorer Dan Buettner. Photo by Tom Sanders

Dan Buettner was only a few years out of college when, in 1987, he launched what would be the first of many quests.

Originally, he intended to bicycle from his native Minnesota to the southern tip of South America. But when he learned that wouldn’t set any world records, he did what he is wont to do – he upped the ante. He started from arctic Alaska and biked 15,500 miles all the way to land’s end in Chile and became the first man ever to cycle from a northern to a southern extreme.

Over the next few years, he would cycle across the Soviet Union and across the length and width of Africa with a small team of riders and document the experiences for National Geographic magazine. It was at the completion of the Africa trip – 11,885 miles, through deserts, mountains, and war zones in which the roads were sometimes littered with corpses – that a conversation with an editor changed the course of his life.

“I came back from those three expeditions and my editor at National Geographic said something really pivotal to me,” Buettner said. “He said ‘If you want to keep on exploring, you need to do expeditions that add to the body of knowledge or educate.’ That was a really big ‘ah ha!’ moment for me.”

Buettner is not a man who steps into action timidly. In 1995, he assembled a team of scientists, photographers, geographers, and journalists, and embarked on what would be the first of two dozen quests into mysteries of human history – a 3,244 mile bicycle expedition through Mexico and Central America that sought to explore the reasons for the disappearance of the Maya civilization in 900 A.D. The team was equipped with laptops and a satellite dish and used the early iteration of the Internet to interact with 40,000 schools, both sharing the adventure with students and tapping into the collective curiosity of more than a million kids to help guide the quest itself.

These quests would travel the world and gain both scientific and popular acclaim. Buettner had managed to fuse the romanticism and thirst for knowledge that had marked the great geographic wanderers of the 19th century with the democratic technology of the 20th century. He’d become one of the greatest modern day explorers alive.

“I’m basically a walking science experiment,” he later said in a short documentary filmed by his alma mater, St. Thomas University in Minnesota. “I’ve had malaria, giardia, dysentery, intestinal worms, every kind of gastro-intestinal infection you can think of. I’ve bicycled 120,000 miles, and statistically, I should have been hit by some vehicle. But maybe it’s my grandmother praying for me that got me through.”

His reverence for – and deep attention to — our elders would inevitably lead Buettner on perhaps humanity’s oldest quest. He went searching for what he would term “the true fountain of youth.” In 2000, Buettner travelled to Okinawa, Japan, a small island 15 miles across that boasted the highest life expectancy in the world (women live 86 years on average) and where 40 centenarians had been documented. He sought to investigate the mysteries of human longevity.

Over the next five years the project would broaden. Buettner would lead explorations to the four areas demographers had termed “Blue Zones” where people lived the longest, healthiest, and happiest lives: Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Okinawa. In 2008, he wrote a New York Times best-selling book called “The Blue Zones” that not only documented these travels but offered a prescription that was described in its subtitle, “Lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest.”

And then, of course, Buettner upped the ante. Armed with a $1 million grant from AARP, he and a team of experts created the Vitality City project and applied those prescriptions to Albert Lea, a small city of 18,000 people in Minnesota. In the course of only nine months in 2009, they achieved startling success in what was dubbed “the miracle in Minnesota.” Participants lost an average of 2.6 pounds and increased their projected life expectancy by 3.1 years (Blue Zone populations worldwide see a life expectancy 10 to 12 years longer than average). Additionally, health care claims for city and school employees in Albert Lea dropped by 32 percent over ten months.

“The results were stunning,” Walter Willett, chair of Harvard’s Department of Nutrition told Newsweek magazine.

But Albert Lea was only the pilot project. Its success caught the attention of two major players – Healthways, a company that works with some of the nation’s largest employers to improve employee well-being and drive down health care costs, and Gallup Polls, which has developed a $25 million state-of-the-art measurement tool called the Well Being Index that surveys the physical and emotional health of 188 cities throughout the United States.

Thus was launched the Healthways/Blue Zones Vitality City project. Last year, 55 cities across the nation applied to become the next Vitality City in what would essentially be a quest for the Holy Grail in the field of public health initiatives: the goal was to take a large heterogeneous population and measurably improve its health, happiness, and longevity.

The Beach Cities Health District caught wind of the project and applied on behalf of Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo Beach, pulling off the remarkable feat of garnering the unanimous support from every elected body, city manager, and school superintendent in the three cities.

Last October, the beach cities were selected. After months of surveys, focus groups, and planning, Vitality City truly gets underway this month. The BCHD board of directors approved the Vitality City blueprint at its last meeting and Healthways will begin conducting free workplace health evaluations this month.  Walking teams – called Moai teams after the Okinawa term for “meeting for a common purpose” – start with a launch event at 11 area schools on April 25 and 26.

Buettner, who lived in Redondo Beach for several years during the years he conducted his 18 interactive quests, could not be more excited to be back in the South Bay on this particular mission.

“There is no question: this is far and away the biggest expedition of my life,” Buettner said. “But everything I’ve done up to this point trains me for this one. The thing is, we got Newsweek, Good Morning America, Nightline, U.S. News & World Report all pretty excited about what we did in Albert Lea. I think we showed them a glimpse. But the South Bay of LA – if we can do it here, we’ve proven to the rest of America it can be done.”






The explorer

It all began, strangely enough, with a game of croquet.

Buettner figured out early in life that a little brio would go a long ways. As a 14-year-old, he’d noticed that paperboys only made $3 a week delivering newspapers. He started selling subscriptions and soon was making $75 a night and winning trips to Spain, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands. As he later told Minneapolis’s Secrets of the City magazine, this was when he realized he wanted to become an explorer.

“I was in Spain’s Costa del Sol. It was my senior year in high school on one of these newspaper company trips,” Buettner said in a 2005 interview. “I was waking up on this sunny morning and back here in Minnesota it was ten below and I said, ‘I want to do this!’”

The first job he took immediately after college – he graduated with degrees in international business and Spanish – was organizing a celebrity croquet tournament for National Public Radio. Famed participatory journalist George Plimpton, who’d undertaken such projects as boxing with champ Archie Moore (Plimpton was bloodied) and playing quarterback with the Detroit Lions (Plimpton was pummeled), signed on to serve as host of the tournament.

Plimpton must have recognized a kindred soul in Buettner. He invited Buettner to stay at his home in New York City. The journalist was also the founder of the Paris Review literary journal, and his home served as both its headquarters and famously free-flowing salon.

“I spent a couple days every week at his place,” Buettner said. “Four out of seven nights he’d have a party there. You’d come home one night and you’d see Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. You’d come home another night and Hunter S. Thompson would be getting high. It was amazing. It’s hard to imagine a salon of that octane any place today, of that intellectual octane. But as a 24-year-old kid, I was right in the middle of it.”

Buettner learned to think big.

“Had I never left Minnesota – I love Minnesota, it’s my home – but there is a certain parochial thinking that infects us here,” he said. “And having been exposed to that New York crowd’s way of thinking outside the box, of imagining something bigger – creating the vision is the first step to realizing it. I really learned that.”

He also learned the value of publicity and the importance of generating large-scale involvement. His first bicycle expedition had sponsorships of only $12,000, but by the time he started leading his interactive quests he was managing $500,000 budgets and attracting worldwide attention. Buettner proved to supremely skilled at networking – both harnessing the new power of the Internet to utilize “the wisdom of crowds” and enlisting the top scientific minds in the various expeditions he undertook.

“I got very good at networking with the top scientists in any given field, very quickly metabolizing the academic research in that field, and being able to work with a huge online audience to make the expeditions relevant,” he recalled. “But also giving back something to the academic field – to the body of knowledge, so to speak.”

Buettner in the field. Photo courtesy of Dan Buettner

The group he founded, the Quest Network, was acquired by El Segundo-based Classroom Connect. For a few years, he had a place on the Esplanade in Redondo Beach that served as his home base. He completed 18 quests and attracted an online following – a decade before social networking was common – of one million followers.

And then he undertook an expedition that would guide him for the next decade.

“On one of those quests, oddly enough, we were hired by the Japanese government to come do a quest in Japan, and we looked around for an archeological mystery but none of them made sense to an American audience,” Buettner said. “Then, in 2000, we stumbled upon a World Health Organization finding revealing that on the southernmost prefecture in Japan, the island of Okinawa, people had the longest disability free life expectancies in the world – in other words the longest, healthiest lives. And I knew that this was a heterogeneous population, so the answer to this had to be in something they were doing.”


Into the Blue Zone

This initial quest into longevity garnered enormous web traffic. Buettner realized he’d found a quest of another order – not just into an ancient mystery, but into the acquired wisdom of an age-old culture that holds relevance for everyone who seeks to live better. He successfully pitched the story to National Geographic and hired a team of demographers and scientists to seek out similar “Blue Zones” around the globe and explore those places with scientific rigor. The result, a story titled “Secrets of Living Longer,” was National Geographic’s third most popular issue ever.

The Blue Zones book was also an enormous hit. He appeared on everything from Oprah to TEDx and became a nationally known figure. Both in his writing and in person, Buettner has an enormously appealing persona. He’s a natural storyteller who possesses a buoyant sense of optimism that happens to built upon a foundation of fact. He cites empirical data to buttress much of what he says, but his research is also warmly human. The centenarians who emerge from the pages of his book are vivid, wise, and astonishing – from the 100-year-old Costa Rican farmer who still played the guitar, fancied himself a lady’s man and at 94 had married a woman 40 years his junior to the sharp-tongued and joyous 102-year-old Okinawan woman who still served as the spiritual adviser for her village.

Dave Lee, a radio personality from Minneapolis who followed Buettner’s increasingly ambitious travels, remarked in the documentary that a rare quality drove these expeditions.

“Dan is one of those rare people who has a purpose,” Lee said.  “He knows what he wants to do. He definitely wants to leave a quality legacy. And when he goes on these treks now, these expeditions in the Blue Zones, he’s trying to educate people. He’s really trying to make the world a better place.”

Buettner derived nine lessons for living longer from his travels: “move naturally” (be active without having to think about it); hara hachi bu, an Okinawan phrase that means quit eating when you are 80 percent full; eat plants and avoid meat and processed foods; drink a little bit of red wine most every day; “ikigai,” another Okinawan concept which means “why I wake up in the morning” and refers to a possessing a strong sense of purpose; “down shift,” meaning take time to relieve your stresses; belong, largely through participating in a spiritual community of some sort; “loved ones first,” that is, make family a priority; and “right tribe,” that is, surround yourself with people who live with the aforementioned values.

Dan Buettner with Father Constantino Bakas, a Greek Orthodox priest in Ikaria, Greece. Photo by Gianluca Colla.

But Buettner didn’t stop there. He knew such knowledge was fruitless unless he was able to find the key to implementing it.

“I knew from looking for 10 years at the longest living populations on four continents – I could tell you exactly what you should do to live another decade,” Buettner said. “But it’s one thing knowing what that is and getting people to do it. And there is the big disconnect.”

He obtained another grant from National Geographic and spent a year studying every major public health initiative in the United States and elsewhere.

“I found two astounding things: one is almost categorically they fail in the long-term,” Buettner said. “Our government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and nothing has worked in the long-run – everything goes back to the baseline. But then I found a few public health initiatives around the world in which not necessarily the whole thing worked, but components did that are still yielding results 10, 15, and 20 years later.”

The successes had one thing in common: rather than targeting people’s behavior, they made changes in their environments. Buettner understood that a successful public health campaign that could make broad and significant impact would have to work from this foundation.

“I have zero belief that Americans on a whole can change their behavior enough to battle the health care crisis and the obesity epidemic in our country,” he said. “Human willpower is never going to surmount the challenge of our junk food, mechanized, motorized, advertisement-laden environment. There is just too much temptation, it’s too easy…So it was clear to me the secret lay in changing people’s environments.”


101-year-old Panchita, one of the centenarians from the Blue Zone in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica

Vitality City USA

Susan Burden felt like she’d run into a wall.

Burden took over as CEO of the Beach Cities Health District seven years ago. The health district system was formed in California in the 1940s to provide health care to rural areas. The BCHD ran a hospital until 1988, by which time the South Bay was decidedly non-rural and other nearby hospitals had been established.  The organization was transformed into a public agency that focused its efforts on preventative health measures.

The BCHD, in other words, was in the business of small-scale public health campaigns. Under Burden’s tenure, the district had achieved remarkable success in a few areas.  Its Livewell Kids program, a nutrition education program operated within the Redondo Beach Unified School District, had achieved a small but statistically significant reduction in students’ Body Mass Index (a standardized measure of age and height appropriate weight). And BCHD’s outreach to seniors and socioeconomically disadvantaged residents had likewise measurably improved access to health care.

But Burden had arrived at a conclusion that the district needed to find a way to reach the rest of the beach cities population, one that statistics indicated was far less healthy than most people probably believed – life expectancy measures in Hermosa Beach, for example, were 60th among the 103 cities in LA County, and childhood obesity was as much a problem here as it is elsewhere in the country.

Burden believed that the only solution was changes in the environment of the South Bay. “The question was how are we going to address this environmental aspect of people getting healthy?” Burden recalled. “Then Dan Buettner walks in. ‘This is how you address it.’ It was like a match.”

Burden had run across Vitality City information at a health care conference last year and tasked her chief medical officer, Lisa Santora, with finding out more about the initiative. She’d also, somewhat ironically, been asked to address public health at a Manhattan Beach TEDx conference last year and been given a video of Buettner speaking on the same topic at another TEDx conference that had astonished her. He was on exactly the same page.

The BCHD board enthusiastically embraced Vitality City, approving a $1.8 million appropriation over three years in order to receive a matching commitment of $3.5 million from Blue Zones/Healthways. When, shortly thereafter the beach cities were officially named the next Vitality City, it felt to Burden like the missing piece of the puzzle had just been snapped into place.

“If he just came in and did some guru thing with some unscientific approach, it would not have been approved at the health district,” Burden said. “But he arrived here with research and science validating everything he said. It made a huge difference.”

Vitality City also arrived with the $25 million Gallup/Healthways Well Being Index and what can best be described as an A Team of public health policy specialists. The team includes Dan Burden, the nation’s foremost walk-ability and bike-ability expert; Brian Wansick, the author of Mindless Eating, who has been described as the “Sherlock Holmes of food” for his innovative approach at changing environments ranging from restaurants, grocery stores, and kitchen pantries in ways that make healthful eating more obvious and convenient; Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis, who co-authored the groundbreaking book on the power of real world social networks, Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do;  and Joel Spoonheim, the project leader who worked on the Albert Lea Vitality City project.

The idea is to make changes in the South Bay environment – including more public gathering places, bike lanes, smaller plates, better restaurant menus, “Blue Zone” grocery store sections, and the fostering of a greater sense of community connectedness – that make healthier choices easier.

“These are experts in changing the environment so people can mindlessly live in that environment but they will be nudged into better eating, fewer calories, more physical activity, and more quality social interaction – all the things we know yield a longer, better life,” Buettner said.

RBUSD school superintendent Steven Keller admits that he was skeptical.

“I grew up with four older brothers and an older sister, the youngest of six, and I am skeptical when I meet someone with charm and charisma – my brothers and sister were exactly like that, and they would prey on it,” Keller said. “Dan reminded me of my older brother. I heard him speak at that first joint meeting…and I thought, ‘Hmmm….Is he the real deal?”

Keller read his books and a few months later met him again and had the opportunity to question him extensively. He came away convinced.

“He is the real deal,” Keller said. “He is all about a movement and change beyond the borders that surround our schools….And you just don’t see these movements where everyone drinks the low-calorie Kool Aid, you just don’t see this in my profession – where a movement comes along and you just can’t find a single grain, can’t find something to challenge what I am hearing. Every ounce of my skepticism has been addressed.”

A key word here is movement. The idea behind the Vitality City project is to create more than a one-off initiative. The ambitions are greater. Buettner is once again raising the ante.

“I’ll be honest with people: we are not doing what has been done before,” Buettner said. “Ever component of the Vitality City project is evidence-based. But nobody has brought them together the way we are bringing them together. So, in a way, the beach cities are part of an expedition team that I think is going to lead America in a new way of thinking about health, about making a community healthier.”

If this project is successful, Buettner expects it to become a model for the rest of the country.

“So many trends have been set in California,” he said. “Surfing and clothes and fashion – the rest of America looks to California. You know, what starts in California this year will get to Minnesota in 2013, and we’ll think we are hip then…I just know that all eyes will be on us to prove that we can do it.”

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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