Healthy choices aren’t always easy, but three California cities may be having some success in nudging residents towards better eating and exercise habits.
Three years ago in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach restaurants began offering lower calorie menu choices. They promoted salads and fruit over French fries and grocery stores highlighted healthy foods. Schools also set up “walking school buses”; cities added bike paths. Smoking bans were extended.
The changes are part of the Blue Zones project, adopted by the Beach Cities Health District. Inspired by Dan Buettner’s book “The Blue Zone,” which reported the lifestyle habits in areas of the world with the largest percentage of people who live to be over 100, Blue Zones worked with businesses, government agencies and community groups to create a healthier environment.
Cris Bennett, owner of the Good Stuff restaurant chain, started offering a menu of 16 items under 600 calories featuring such dishes as “fabulous fitness fajitas” and a 150-calorie Brownie Bite dessert. Bennett said customers and employees alike loved it.
“I have this one guy that lost 45 pounds and still has it off today,” he said. “He honestly did a lifestyle change and has been able to stay with it.”
At Grow grocery store in Manhattan Beach, customers can pick up a list of healthy foods eaten by centenarians like bananas, eggplant, nuts and mushrooms. The store showcases wholesome choices- like oatmeal with blueberries or tomatoes with pasta.
Barry Fisher, owner of Grow, said new customers came to his store in part because of Blue Zones marketing. The health district excelled at public relations, he said. “They showed the benefit,” he said. “They said you want a healthy society? It’s better for everyone.”
One study found that between 2010 and 2012, obesity in the three beach cities dropped 14 percent with an estimated 1,645 fewer obese adults and $2.35 million in health care savings. Smoking dropped 30 percent with 3,484 fewer smokers resulting in an estimated $6.9 million in health care savings.
In “The Blue Zone,” Buettner reported on common lifestyle habits seen in four areas where a high percentage of people live to be 100: Loma Linda, Calif.; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
He found that these people ate a mostly vegetarian diet, maintained close family relations, had a sense of purpose, did something regularly to relieve stress like nap or drink wine (moderately) and surrounded themselves with people who lived a healthy lifestyle.
In a recent phone interview, Buettner said it’s far easier to make healthy choices if those around you are doing the same thing. “If you hang out with people who sit on the couch and eat Doritos that’s what you’re more likely to do,” he said.
Buettner’s first efforts to work with a community to apply Blue Zones principles was in 2009 in Albert Lea, Minn, a city of 18,000. The project helped set up walking clubs, community gardens and wellness policies.
“There are hundreds of little tweaks we can make to the environment we live in to nudge us into better health,” Buettner said.
The Beach Cities Health District, which serves a population of 125,000, got involved after it won a contest, beating out 55 cities nationwide to become a Blue Zones community. The health district invested $600,000 a year in the project for the first three years and Healthways contributed $1.2 million a year.
Susan Burden, chief executive officer of the health district, convinced more than 35 elected officials to lend their support to the project. “This one, almost any politician could agree it’s a good thing,” she said. “We’re talking about healthy choices, not healthy mandates.”
Dr. Lisa Santora, chief medical officer at the health district, said the project enticed participating businesses with marketing and promotions. To date, 64 restaurants have the “Blue Zones” logo on their doors. “Your mom and pop business doesn’t have much of an advertising budget,” she said. “We create a win-win situation. They’re creating a healthier environment and we highlight them in a local newspaper.”
The Blue Zones project reached out to families with children by promoting “walking school buses” at 10 schools. Parent volunteers signed up to lead groups of students in walking to school, picking kids up in designated spots.
Before the program launched, most parents drove their kids to school even though 95 percent of the student population lives less than a mile away, said Rebecca Moore, a volunteer parent coordinator at Redondo Beach’s Beryl Heights Elementary School.
Now about 100 of the school’s 420 students walk. “It’s great for their mental health,” Moore said. “It clears their head and gives them a good transition to go to school.”
Early on, Blue Zones also worked with the South Bay Bicycle Coalition in getting approval of a master bicycle plan that will add 216 miles of bike paths. “When they found out about us, we were instantly in love with each other,” said Jim Hannon, president of the coalition. “I used to refer to it as the stars aligned perfectly.”
Since Blue Zones started, Hermosa Beach prohibited smoking in all outdoor dining areas, Manhattan Beach banned smoking on its Strand and city parks. It was a relatively easy sell, Santora said. “I wouldn’t say there was a lot of pushback. The majority of our community already are nonsmokers.”
The Beach Cities Health District is committed to continuing Blue Zones for another three years.
Blue Zones has also had success working in Iowa, helping the state to move up to the top 10 of the overall Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The next projects are planned for Fort Worth, Texas and Hawaii.
“My aspiration is that other cities will look and raise their hands and say we want to do this here too,” Buettner said. “Whether they do it with us or on their own, it doesn’t matter to me.”