One of the biggest attractions for the thousands of people moving to Northwest Arkansas each year is the quality of life.
That’s one positive step in the region becoming the state’s first Blue Zone for longevity and healthier lives.
Tony Buettner, a co-founder and national spokesman for the Minnesota-based Blue Zones Project, is in Northwest Arkansas this week with his team to try and gauge the pulse and interest from the broader community to see if the region is ready to tackle a Blue Zone transformation. Buettner spoke to a room full of business and community leaders in Rogers on Tuesday (Feb. 12) and will hold sessions again today at the Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas to discuss how community policy impacts physical activity, access to healthier foods and smoking across the two-county area.
Buettner said his group was invited for an initial assessment because civic and business leaders have already laid some groundwork with walkable downtowns and a labyrinth of trail systems throughout Northwest Arkansas.
He said there is also a keen interest in healthier eating with vibrant farmers’ markets and various farm-to-table programs.
He said other teams to work with the community leaders and economic leaders will follow in the next couple of months “getting down in the weeds” to assess the opportunities and challenges with Northwest Arkansas becoming a Blue Zones community, an elite group of 42 cities and regions in nine states. The closest two cities now in the midst of carrying out their Blue Zones projects are Fort Worth, Texas, and Shawnee, Okla.
There are plenty of reasons for wanting to become a Blue Zone, namely a healthier and happier general population, Buettner said during his remarks on Tuesday. He said there are just a handful of natural Blue Zones in the world: Ikaria, Greece, Sardinia, Italy, Loma Linda, Calif., the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and Okinawa, Japan.
The Blue Zones Project set out to study these regions and look for similarities in diets, mobility and lifestyles. Researchers found they were more alike than different. He said one common element among the regions with nearly four times the number of centenarians than the U.S. is none of them set out with a mission to reach 100 years old.
“Longevity isn’t pursued; it’s ensued,” Buettner said.
Buettner shared a few portraits of centenarians from the original Blue Zones. He said one 97-year-old millionaire in Loma Linda got a bid for a new privacy fence but decided he would build it himself. For four days, Buettner said they watched him dig fence footings and put up the fence. Two days later, he ended up in the operating room — not as a patient but as a cardiac surgeon who still participates in 20 open-heart surgeries a month.
One of his favorite interviews was with a 104-year-old lady who starts each day with a “prune juice shooter.” He said she rides a stationary bike three miles a day and then volunteers the rest of the day for seven different organizations in Loma Linda.
Halfway around the world, Buettner said it’s not uncommon to see a 103-year-old man chopping wood in Sardinia, Italy, where the men live 10 years longer on average than in the U.S. He said the longest living women are in Okinawa, Japan, where they live 12 years longer on average than women in the U.S. Their secret, he said, is the practice of meditation and de-stressing, which is done each day with a cup of tea and reflecting on lost loved ones. He said the Japanese also have very strong social circles throughout their life, another element proven to add years to a lifespan.
Examining the original Blue Zones, Buettner and his team came up with nine key elements which they say can be replicated in other communities around the world to achieve healthier populations who live longer.
- Move naturally. Find ways to be more physically active. The original Blue Zones have people moving every 20 minutes. Walking, biking, standing and not sitting.
- Waking up with a purpose each day can add up to seven years to a lifespan.
- Shift down. Find time to de-stress each day, meditate, practice yoga or whatever works for a personal taste.
- Plant slant. Put more fruits and vegetables on your plate.
- Wine at 5. For those that have a healthy relationship with alcohol, enjoy a glass of wine with good friends each day. Go to happy hour.
- Family first. Invest time in family, which can add up to six years to an average life.
- Belong to a faith-based community and attend services regularly to add up to 14 years to your life.
- Right tribe. Surround yourself with people who support positive behaviors — and who support you.
More information about the Blue Zones Project is available here.