Live Long and Prosper: The progress of the Beach Cities Blue Zones Project
by David Mendez
More than five years ago, the Blue Zones Project rolled into the Beach Cities with a simple but ambitious goal. The project intended to help the people in the communities it served live longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives.
Driven by Beach Cities Health District CEO Susan Burden, then-Chief Medical Officer Lisa Santora and Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner, BZP had its work cut out for it: Nearly 60 percent of the population was overweight or obese, and stress levels of residents were akin to those of people living in poverty and disaster-riddled cities.
Today, the Beach Cities Blue Zones Project is thriving — and, accordingly, so are most of its residents.
The people of the Beach Cities are reporting that they are living significantly better lives in almost every respect than they were five years ago, according to a recent update of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
“We’ve seen fairly dramatic health gains here that go against trends from other parts of the country — places where not only did they not see gains, but they saw figures going the other way,” Burden said. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re one of the few places in the country that has things in place to build a healthier community.”
According to the WBI, obesity levels across the Beach Cities are less than half of the national average; high blood pressure and cholesterol levels have dropped; exercise and produce consumption levels are increasing; and smoking levels continue to drop, as fewer than nine percent of the nearly 1,000 people surveyed identified as smokers.
In conjunction with the numbers celebrated by the Well-Being Index, the Beach Cities have been nationally certified as a Blue Zones Community, making Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, as a community, the largest area yet to be certified as such, alongside 11 other U.S. cities.
“The Beach Cities have been the most successful, cutting obesity, cutting smoking — there’s been the biggest bang for the buck there than in any other Blue Zones Project city,” said Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones.
Certification is, in essence, confirmation that the processes set in place for the Beach Cities Blue Zones Project are working. “It requires both process objectives and achieving outcome objectives,” Buettner said.
The project grew out of Buettner’s investigations on behalf of National Geographic into the longest-living, healthiest peoples on the planet. Buettner sought to apply health and longevity lessons derived from the five geographies called Blue Zones by demographers (Okinawa, Japan; Nicoye Peninsula, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Lorba Linda, California) to a population within the United States. The Beach Cities was the first full-fledged Blue Zones Project after a nine-month pilot program in Albert Lea, Minnesota.
Creating an environment that fosters well-being — making the healthy choice the easy choice, as BCHD officials would say — is key to longevity, even more than self-discipline and changing bad habits, Buettner said. “Optimizing your environment in enough of these areas is key to making the certification criteria,” he said. “And the Beach Cities have done that.”
Those changes have come in the form of making the Beach Cities more walkable and bikeable with the continued creation of bike lanes and protected bike paths across the Beach Cities, exemplified by Redondo’s Harbor Drive Bike Path, and the adoption of the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan. Other elements included childhood nutrition and physical activity programs (such as “The Walking School Bus” in which entire neighborhoods walked to school together) and various activities intended to upend sedentary lifestyles and increase community connection (such as “Walking Maois,” based on an Okinawa tradition, in which groups of people took regular walks together).
Buy-in from local restauranteurs with the Blue Zones Restaurant program has also been a boon, as more than 100 restaurants across the Beach Cities have opted to create more healthful options for diners. Even here, a key has been environmental cues toward healthier behavior — such as the use of smaller plates.
BZP has made waves at the youth level as well, as childhood obesity levels have dropped to nine percent of the kindergarten to fifth-grade school population in Redondo.
The proof of the work that the Beach Cities Health District has done is in the Well-Being Index.
Improvements are significant across the Beach Cities — but the biggest victories in healthy living, according to BCHD CEO Susan Burden, comes not just from decreases in obesity and smoking but in decrease in daily stress.
“We’ve seen a ten percent drop in daily, significant stress from where we started in 2010,” Burden said. “Stress levels, particularly in Manhattan Beach, were as the same as measured in New Orleans post-Katrina, or in Detroit.”
While one would consider the relative affluence of the Beach Cities to be a boon — 59 percent of those surveyed for the WBI said they have enough money to do everything they want to do — Gallup research director Dan Witters said that the old adage holds: Money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness.
“Daily emotional experiences do get better for people, up until someone is making about $75,000 a year in household income…but stress starts going up again as income continues climbing. For some people, it’s described as productive stress, part of more professional, white collar jobs where stress comes with the territory,” Witters said. “We call it the $75,000 Rule.”
But, as the WBI shows, stress levels appear to have dropped, which Witters attributes to increases in exercise levels.
“It goes to show that even when demographics might be stressed or handicapped, you can move the needle if you put in place the right interventions and create the right environment for well-being,” he said.
Overall, the Beach Cities as a community are well beyond the nation on the Well-Being Index, scoring a 65.9. That widely trounces a 61.5 national score, and a statewide 62.7 score.
Individually, Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo Beach are among the nation’s highest-charting cities as well; taken individually, the respective cities would be first, second and fifth out of 190 areas surveyed in 2015.
Manhattan Beach residents register higher levels of financial, social and physical well-being among the Beach Cities; alternatively, Hermosa residents have the highest level of community satisfaction and sense of purpose.
The weak link in the three-city chain is Redondo Beach; among the Beach Cities, its residents have the highest level of financial concerns, lower levels of community satisfaction, and lower scores on the WBI’s Physical Well-Being metrics.
But that is only in comparison with its fellow Beach Cities. Redondo still outpaces the rest of the nation in all but one Well-Being Index category, “Purpose”; and even then, the difference is slight.
“The Beach Cities have always compared favorably with external benchmarks, and it’s no different now than it has been,” Witters said. “But collectively, scoring 65.9 — three full points greater than the rest of the state — is a pretty significant difference. Not just statistically significant, but meaningfully large.”
As the Blue Zones Project gains wider-spread adoption across the country, such as in Fort Worth, Texas, the challenge grows. “They’re probably in the lower-third of the country, as far as healthiness — but the more unhealthy a place is, the more we can help them by optimizing their environment,” Buettner said.
But each community that takes on Blue Zones, and sees a change for the better, has the Beach Cities to thank, he said.
“No one else in America had done this to this level before — the beauty of Susan [Burden] and the Health District willing to be a partner in innovation is that, if something doesn’t make a permanent, healthy change to the environment, they don’t do it,” Buettner said.
“It’s really a different twist on how to work in health, looking at how to improve health versus dealing with the fallout of people taking bad care of themselves,” said Burden, who is retiring in October. “There’s a certain number of illnesses unrelated to lifestyle management; a lot of it is how we manage our lifestyles and our decisions, and I think it’s a bold attempt to say ‘we can change this.’”
“Susan signed on and tried things that failed; they switched a team over a few times until they found the right people who got the approach and got good at it, and they’ve perfected the model,” Buettner said. “Now, it’s like clockwork, and we have the Beach Cities to thank. Not only is it a success story, but it’s the R&D lab for finding out what really works.” ER