Nudging us into the Blue Zones

Blue Zones project builds small, subtle measures into large, lasting changes

Author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner speaks during the Blue Zones Project Cedar Rapids kickoff community
Author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner speaks during the Blue Zones Project Cedar Rapids kickoff community rally at Prairie High School on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cedar Rapids is one of 16 Blue Zone Project demonstration sites where communities will develop and implement a Blueprint for making permanent environmental, social and policy changes that transition people into healthier behaviors that can lead to longer, happier lives. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

Prepare for nudges, but not necessarily nannies.

Monday was the kickoff of Cedar Rapids’ Blue Zones Project, named by author Dan Buettner, who traveled the globe gathering insights from places where people tend to live longer. It turns out folks from Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda, Nicoya and Ikaria live more physically active, purposeful lives. They deal better with stress, eat more plants, less meat and don’t have to unbutton their pants after a meal.

People in most of those places enjoy a couple of drinks, put their families first, belong to faith communities and have close social relationships with friends who also live well. They don’t join gyms or bounce from diet to diet. I must admit, as I type away with my Cheetos-stained sausage fingers, that these folks are on to something.

So the point of becoming a Blue Zone community is to see if we can apply any of these lessons to Cedar Rapids. Marion, where I live, also is a Blue Zone town.

It all makes sense, and yet, mention Blue Zones in some corners and eyes roll, defenses raise, phasers are set on snark. We’ve been subjected to so many stern warnings and menacing mandates aimed at our supersized waistlines and unhappy meals that a backlash was inevitable. What are the nannies coming for now? Our liberties we prize, and our plate-sized tenderloins we will maintain.

But I think Blue Zone efforts are really more about nudges than nannies. Maybe your grocery store changes the way it displays and promotes good food. Maybe your workplace helps you deal with stress or gives you more flexibility for family needs. Maybe your city puts out some bike racks, or makes it easier for a neighborhood to plant a garden. Buettner emphasizes the importance of “local wisdom” over imposing cookie-cutter ideas from outside. So it’s up to us.

My experience around these parts leads me to believe that these kind of simple, subtle, low-profile but potentially high-impact nudges will be more welcome and effective than government mandates. These are the sort of things that may lead even the eye-rollers to turn blue before they know it. Bigger changes are built on the success of small victories.

Government has a role. I can’t paint a bike lane or start blazing new recreational trails in my spare time. There will be policy changes and policy debates. My advice to local leaders is don’t think, “Blue Zones, that’s why” is a good rationale for public policy decisions. You still need to engage and explain. Build a healthy consensus. That’s very Blue Zone. 

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