Like computers and food, we’re constantly pushing for cheaper, better faster. But I don’t think it’s going to work to create healthier communities.
Almost 70 percent of us are overweight or obese; the vast majority will die early deaths from chronic disease. This is not our fault. In the 1970s, Americans suffered only about a third of the rate of obesity and commensurately lower rates of diabetes, heart disease and avoidable cancer. What’s changed? Better diets? Better gym equipment? Or were our parents and younger selves more disciplined?
In Blue Zones areas around the world such as Sardinia, Okinawa and among Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif., people live the longest, healthiest lives. They didn’t get that way with diet and exercise programs; they don’t have more discipline or education than we do. These Blue Zones citizens didn’t pursue longevity; it came about because the fruits and vegetables were cheapest and most accessible, they were nudged into movement every 20 minutes, they walked to work, church, school and each other’s homes; and they socialized several hours daily. The lived long, healthy lives not because they pursued health but rather it ensued because they lived in the right environment.
As cities sprawl, beautiful downtowns die. We’re forced to drive more to do our shopping and socializing. We’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives with mechanical conveniences. And we live in a forest of fast-food joints and easy processed foods. This environment is making us sick.
I have little faith in the mantra that health is a matter of individual responsibility. A healthy America is going to come when we look the beast (our living environment) in the eye and make changes to make the healthy choices most salient.
Working with Blue Zones Project, Iowa communities took cues from the world’s longest-lived cultures to begin to reshape cities to favor more natural movement, more plant-based eating, more healthy socialization and more purpose-driven life. And the foundation for change was put in motion.
Our approach is modeled after Finland’s North Karelia Project and involves getting schools, restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, faith organizations and homes to make evidence-based tweaks to nudge people into better behaviors. It also invites city councils to adopt policies that favor fruits and vegetables and streets that encourage walking and biking.
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When it comes to health and longevity, there’s no short-term fix: you have to do the right things and avoid the wrong things for decades. I wish the Blue Zones Project communities much success. The health of America’s communities depend on a long-term commitment to changing our living environment.
• Dan Buettner is a National Geographic fellow and Blue Zones founder.