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How These Beach Cities Cut Their Childhood Obesity Rate in Half How These Beach Cities Cut Their Childhood Obesity Rate in Half
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How These Beach Cities Cut Their Childhood Obesity Rate in Half

Insights & Ideas Team •  September 8, 2015 | Home and Family

How do you get an entire community to adopt healthy habits so everyone can live longer and happier lives? Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach may be located along Southern California’s scenic coast, but the people who live there suffer from the same lifestyle illnesses as the rest of the country.

“There are pockets of poverty, just like anywhere else,” notes Beach Cities Health District (BCHD) CEO Susan Burden. Studies showed that stress, anger and addiction rates were higher in the Beach Cities than elsewhere in the country. Smoking rates were high. “And 18 percent of our kids were obese,” she says.

The Health District teamed with workplace health specialists Healthways and longevity experts Blue Zones to offer a blend of creative programming and public/private partnerships to help the Beach Cities population get healthier and hopefully live longer.

In a study conducted after the first three years of participation in the Blue Zones Project®, the Beach Cities saw an increase in exercise and healthy eating, a 28 percent decrease in smoking and $12 million savings in annual health care costs, according to a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index poll.

Most impressively, the childhood obesity rate dropped by 50 percent to just 9 percent of the Beach Cities’ youngsters.

The Blue Zone Lifestyle Principles

The BCHD asked people living in the three Beach Cities to pledge to make at least one lifestyle change that would contribute to their well-being. The changes are based on research by New York Times bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, who identified longevity hotspots—called Blue Zones—around the world. People in Blue Zones reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S. and spend most of their lives in good health. Blue Zone cultures in Greece, Japan, Costa Rica and Sardinia seem to share the same nine healthy habits as part of their everyday routine:

  • Move throughout the day.
  • Know your sense of purpose.
  • Reduce stress regularly.
  • Quit eating when you’re 80 percent full.
  • Eat a plant-based diet.
  • Enjoy a glass of wine with friends.
  • Belong to a faith-based community.
  • Put family first.
  • Choose friends with healthy habits.

In the five years since the Beach Cities program began, more than 22,000 people—20 percent of the area’s population—have pledged to make lifestyle changes that would contribute to their well-being and longevity, such as growing a vegetable garden; walking at least three times a week; getting a bicycle and helmet; learning a new hobby; and dedicating a spot for quiet time, meditation or prayer. More continue to take the pledge each month.

The BCHD, in turn, introduced several programs—including free Zumba classes, healthy cooking demonstrations and mindfulness and purpose workshops—to help people who live in the three cities begin their journey to better health and longevity.

That success was based on strategies like these, which any city can emulate:

1. Impact public policy. BCHD was integral in the passage of a comprehensive outdoor smoking ban in Hermosa Beach and in initiatives to make streets more walkable and bikeable in all three communities.

2. Recruit business support. BCHD partnered with the Beach Cities’ chambers of commerce to offer employer wellness services. A number of businesses signed up to offer wellness services to their employees, and the chambers print health-oriented articles in every edition of their magazine.

3. Get restaurants involved. Ninety-six restaurants are now certified to post Blue Zones logos on their doors, indicating that they have worked with Blue Zones experts to ensure that there are healthful options on their menus. In some cases, the healthy menu items were always available, but promoting them as Blue Zones foods has helped increase awareness among diners. Designated Blue Zones restaurants have enjoyed additional publicity and increased sales, according to the Blue Zones website. 

4. Maximize opportunities for social bonding. BCHD helped organize maois (pronounced mow-eyes), which are small groups that meet for a common purpose. The Beach Cities maois included walking, volunteer and potluck dinner groups. Based on a tradition from the Blue Zone of Okinawa, Japan, maois help contribute to a higher sense of well-being and richer relationships with the “right tribe.”

Your tribe is important. “Studies show that if your three best friends are obese, there’s a 50 percent better chance that you’ll be overweight,” says Dan Buettner. “The reverse is true, too. If your best friends’ idea of recreation is physical activity, if they eat right and are engaged with life, those behaviors will influence you, too.”

5. Get children involved. According to Burden, BCHD studies showed that more than 96 percent of children in the Beach Cities were being driven to school despite the cities’ walkable streets. Using guidelines from the National Center for Safe Routes to School, the Beach Cities promoted the formation of Walking School Buses, where groups of kids would walk to school together with adult supervision. There are now more than 33 walking school bus routes in the Beach Cities, and the childhood obesity rate has dropped to just 9 percent this year.

6. Don’t overlook mental health. Buettner’s research has shown that having a purposeful reason for waking up every morning can add up to seven years to your life expectancy. Burden admits she was surprised at the more than 1,100 people who signed up for their purpose workshops.

Burden is convinced that other communities can replicate the Beach Cities’ success using the nine Blue Zones principles. “Where we live, work and play influences the choices we make,” Burden says. “Cities can support the health and vitality of citizens by introducing policies that nudge people into eating better and moving more.”

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