By Emma Haak
Wednesdays around noon are a bustling time on the sidewalks of Spencer, Iowa. That's when Deb Muller and six of her coworkers from Farmers Trust & Savings Bank lace up their cross-trainers for a weekly walk, covering as much ground as they can during their hour-long lunch break. Along the way, they pass other walking groups -- there's a gang from Spencer Hospital and another from the local utility company. "We're outside, chatting away, not even realizing that we're getting exercise," says Muller, 58.
The walking clubs are just one part of a larger movement taking place in Spencer: a program known as the Blue Zones Project, whose ambitious goal is to create healthier American cities through grassroots community involvement and policy efforts. The initiative is the brainchild of journalist Dan Buettner, who has spent the past 12 years studying why, in certain pockets of the world -- from Nicoya, Costa Rica, to Okinawa, Japan, to Sardinia, Italy -- people live well into old age with stunningly low rates of disease. Buettner discovered that residents of these Blue Zones, as researchers called them, shared some important similarities: They didn't smoke or eat much meat, they walked constantly and they maintained robust social lives.
"After I came back to the United States, I wondered what could be done here to nudge people in a healthier direction," says Buettner. "I realized that you can't rely on individuals to do it alone. You have to change their whole environment." His objective: Create Blue Zones across the United States -- cities where at least 20 percent of residents; 25 percent of grocery stores, locally owned restaurants and public schools; and 50 percent of the top 20 employers would adhere to his healthy-living plan.
The pilot program began in 2009 in Minnesota. Buettner's team handpicked the town of Albert Lea, with its manageable population of around 18,000. Local officials, dozens of businesses and more than 3,000 residents eventually signed on. Grocery stores replaced candy in checkout aisles with fruit, restaurants added healthier options to menus and employers began catering more nutritious meals. The results in Albert Lea were impressive: In less than a year, participants added an estimated 2.9 years to their life-spans (according to life expectancy data calculated by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health), and after one year, healthcare costs dropped 40 percent.
Next, Buettner expanded his model to Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach, Calif. These cities, too, saw rapid changes: In three years, the obesity rate declined 14 percent, smoking dropped more than 30 percent and exercise and healthy eating habits increased roughly 10 percent. The Blue Zones plan appeared to work on a small scale; it remained to be seen how it would fare on a bigger stage. But that changed when Iowa stepped up to be the next test case in 2011, with Governor Terry Branstad issuing a challenge to all: Help Iowa become the healthiest state by 2016. Four cities -- Cedar Falls, Mason City, Spencer and Waterloo -- were the first selected. By 2013, 11 more were on board. To date, more than 160,000 Iowans have pledged to live their Blue Zone best.