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Northwest Arkansas leaders have a simple goal for the region: Be one of the best areas in the world to live and work and be recognized for it.

We have made much progress toward this goal, being consistently ranked as a Top 5 place to live by independent evaluators. The population is growing, the economy continues to thrive, education levels are rising, and we continue to invest in our physical and social infrastructure. While that work continues, we need more focus on one of the most fundamental aspects of quality of life -- our health and well-being.

Who came up with the Blue Zones concept?

Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution and other books, dubbed five places where people live the longest, healthiest lives as “Blue Zones” and trademarked the term as he developed an organization to advance nine “lifestyle habits” common to the Blue Zones he identified. So far, 42 communities have joined the effort, according to the organization’s website.

Put simply, the state of Arkansas is ranked near the bottom of basically every health and well-being indicator, and we are trending the wrong direction in obesity, stress, exercise levels and diabetes, among others.

Northwest Arkansas fares slightly better than the rest of the state, but we remain on the wrong end in measures of depression, stress and high blood pressure. Nearly half of Northwest Arkansas residents don't exercise enough or eat enough vegetables, two out of three residents are overweight, just one in five residents visited a dentist in the past year, and one in four residents are not happy with their community.

The impact of all those concerning statistics on each individual is significant, but the potential impact on the region's future is troubling.

We need to do more to improve the health and well-being of area residents, and this is why we are exploring a potential Blue Zones Project in Northwest Arkansas. Inspired by the world's longest-lived cultures, Blue Zones Project is a well-being initiative designed to unite our work sites, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and citizens toward a common goal: making healthy choices easier. A Blue Zones Project team will be here Feb. 12-13 to assess how Northwest Arkansas communities can use Blue Zones principles to become a healthier place.

The Blue Zones Project team believes it is possible to influence people's health and longevity by making the healthier choice the easier choice. A survey, interview and evaluation of hospital stays of more than 3,000 elderly Danish twins led to the conclusion that 80 percent of health is determined by the environment and just 20 percent is genetics-related. So, it's clear there are opportunities for us to shape our environment in ways that benefit us all.

Tripp Umbach, a nationally recognized health care consultant, recently analyzed Northwest Arkansas' health care sector and found we needed to take steps to expand the availability of high-quality specialized health care through expanded graduate medical education and increasing research and development. They found these steps were necessary for our economy to continue to thrive. At the same time, the study recommended the pursuit of a wellness program -- like Blue Zones -- to reduce health care expenditures and increase overall wellness. The impact could be significant with a potential economic impact of more than $1.2 billion, compared to the status quo.

Other communities are already experiencing positive results. Minnesota's Albert Lea, a community where the population had a high rate of smoking and a below-average number of people embracing physical activity, now has less smoking, more exercise and reduced health care costs. People are living longer, too.

Three Los Angeles area suburbs partnered with the Blue Zones Project in 2010, and nearly 66 percent of residents' now report exercising three times a week for at least 30 minutes each time. There are organized, community walking groups. Restaurants in the community have adjusted their menus to match Blue Zones goals, and volunteers are working to encourage students to walk to school each day.

City leaders in Fort Worth, Texas, implemented Blue Zones concepts in 2014, and the results have been outstanding. Fort Worth has moved from 185th to 58th on the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. More specifically, the community reduced smoking by 31 percent, increased individuals who exercise three times per week by 9 percent, and today nearly 70 percent of residents indicate they are proud of Fort Worth.

There are any number of great examples of positive community outcomes on the Blue Zones Project website, www.bluezones.com.

There are good things happening now in Northwest Arkansas that bode well for a successful Blue Zones Project. The Razorback Regional Greenway provides a great bike-pedestrian venue, and our newest, best restaurants are doing a better and better job of providing healthy options on their menus. Yet, we can do more.

The Blue Zones work starts with the on-the-ground assessment Feb. 12-13. The Blue Zones keynote address by Tony Buettner at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12 at Embassy Suites in Rogers is a great way to learn more, and there are more events listed at https://go.bluezonesproject.com/nwarkansas. I hope you will come to learn more.

Commentary on 02/09/2019

Print Headline: A new direction for health

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