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Blue Zones Put Marion, IA in the Pink

Marion has adopted strategies that make it a healthy place to live.

By Laura Hill on July 6, 2016

Marion, IA Blue Zones
Marion / Staff Photo

We’re all intrigued by the occasional stories we see or hear about the man who drank a glass of red wine every day, gardened all his life and died, content, at 102. Or the TODAY show salute to a lady centenarian who attributes her longevity to eating what she wants, taking long walks and playing with her great-grandchildren.

For centuries, society has tried to discover the “fountain of youth,” but it turns out to be flowing in many communities, including Marion. As author Dan Buettner details in his book Blue Zones ® communities where people live the longest tend to follow nine key lessons for life:

1. Move naturally. Just do routine exercise like housework, walking or gardening.

2. Know your purpose. Discover what makes you wake up and get out of bed in the morning.

3. Down shift. Relax and relieve stress, one of the major killers in modern-day society.

4. Follow the 80 percent rule: Stop eating when you are 80 percent full.

5. Plant slant. Eat more beans and other healthy veggies. Eat much less meat.

6. Wine at 5. People who drink a glass of wine or two a day live longer than nondrinkers.

7. Belong. Attending faith-based services – it doesn’t matter which faith – can lengthen your life dramatically.

8. Loved ones first.  Centenarians put their families first, keep aging parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in children.

9. Right tribe. Belong to a social group that supports healthy lifestyles to build one’s own good habits.

Marion, IA Business Overview

Small Steps, Big Results

Happily, these are things to which individuals, groups and whole communities can aspire, a challenge that the state of Iowa and several cities, including Marion, are tackling.

 “In 2014 we took the nine areas of commonality that Dan Buettner found in areas of the world with longevity and set goals for the community to bring those into our everyday life,” says Sara Mentzer, community manager of Marion’s Blue Zones Project®, which is supported by Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Healthways® Inc. and Blue Zones, LLC. “We talked about making healthy choices easier for people.”

 Marion became a Blue Zones® demonstration city in 2013, and set about reaching a number of community-wide goals. In 2015, it was officially designated a Blue Zones® city, Achieving that certification required a huge educational effort by community leaders, volunteers and staff members, who fanned out through Marion enlisting individuals, schools, workplaces, restaurants and grocery stores, as well as effecting changes in policy and the built environment that would lead to better health. In the process, half the city’s top 20 workplaces became Blue Zones Worksites® instituting policies to promote health and well-being, from having CSA shares distributed at work to offering healthier options in vending machines.

 More than 500 people turned out for Saturday morning yoga classes in the park. And schools responded enthusiastically, too.

“Marion High School set up a cart with fresh fruit every day. And by the end of the day, it was empty,” Mentzer says. “We are proud to have the first Blue Zones® certified high school in Iowa, where students raised funds to install a water-refilling station.”

One grocery store increased the amount of shelving for fresh produce. Another substituted bottles of water for soft drinks at the checkout counter – and upped water sales by 80 percent. A community garden was launched on city-owned land, with extra food donated to a local food program. More than 6,000 citizens took the Blue Zones® Personal Pledge and completed a pro-health action of some kind.

Why Marion, IA is a Great Place to Live

Connectedness Brings Well-Being

Interestingly, a major factor in the program is more ephemeral than food or exercise, though it has perhaps a bigger effect on infrastructure. Connectedness – the sense of belonging in your community, being welcomed and useful – leads to longer lives. 

“Feeling connected to your community is a big part of health,” Mentzer says. “People who have up to three friends they can call on a bad day are rare. But people who have that are proven to live longer. And being around people who share healthy habits with you encourages you.”

After its successful startup, Mentzer says, the work now is to continue enrolling people and institutions, and “digging deeper, providing options for connectedness within, sharing best practices and great ideas, making sure that reaches a lot of people. You can see the numbers, but you also want to be able to feel the changes in the community.” 

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