The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

March 9, 2012

Site visit gives Ottumwa a shot at becoming a Blue Zone

OTTUMWA — The chance to become a Blue Zone would be “an opportunity for growth, not a destination to be reached and then forgotten about,” said Ottumwa YMCA Executive Director Tom Sisler.

Ottumwa had its shot at showing Blue Zones officials why the city should be chosen as a demonstration site Thursday morning.

The Blue Zones Project is part of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Healthiest State Initiative with a goal to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016.

The state is already making progress, as it’s moved up from the 19th healthiest state in the nation in 2010 to the 16th in 2011, “so we’re moving in the right direction,” said Mary Lawyer, Healthways Iowa Blue Zone director.

Author Dan Buettner’s research of locations around the world with the longest-living people led him to form the notion of Blue Zones: Communities where a population’s environment leads them to healthy choices and healthy lifestyles. These factors formed his Power 9 Principles.

“It’s going to be a lot of work for you all in this room,” Lawyer said.

Out of Iowa’s more than 1,000 communities, 85 submitted a statement of interest, 58 were chosen to apply, 54 applied and 11 were chosen for site visits. Starting in May, officials will announce those communities chosen as demonstration sites.

Ottumwa’s Blue Zones committee presented the officials with a video overview of the community and how becoming a demonstration site would be beneficial, followed by presentations from four committee members about the four key components.

Ottumwa Schools Director of Community Programs Kim Hellige spoke about the “community” of Ottumwa, highlighting its nearly 10 miles of trails, parks, sidewalks and bike lanes, school programs and initiatives to rebuild downtown.

Laura See, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), detailed Ottumwa’s “social network,” as the committee strives to bring together the community through employers, places of worship, schools and volunteering.

“It’s about connecting; it’s about collaborating,” Sisler said.

Wapello County Public Health Clinical Director and Blue Zones committee Chair Lynelle Diers talked about Ottumwa as a “habitat.”

“Our habitat defines us and what we do,” Diers said, as she talked about the city’s restaurants, grocery stores and vendors, community transformation grant and health issues. “We are one of five counties in Iowa with the highest stroke and heart attack rate.”

Diers also said half of Wapello County’s deaths are due to controllable factors, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, alcohol and tobacco abuse. Wapello County also has low rates of people getting colonoscopies and mammograms when they should.

“There are many things we can change,” Diers said.

Roxanne Cagwin spoke about “inner self” and became choked up as she told her own story of becoming an Ottumwan and helping others.

When Cagwin came to Ottumwa 12 years ago after graduating from Iowa State University, she said she felt like an outsider and was looking for a way to leave.

But she began getting involved by joining a Catholic church and the Human Rights Commission and earning her personal training certificate from the Y. She now owns her own business, Shape Up Ottumwa.

“It’s about cultivating your mind, body and spirit,” Cagwin said. “It’s more than walking, squats and lunges.”

Katie McClure, Blue Zones community program leader, said it’s important for all six sectors — worksite, citizens, community policy, restaurants, grocery stores and schools — to take responsibility for their role in the project.

At least 20 percent of the population needs to pledge their support and incorporate one of the project’s principles into their daily life, such as switching their pantries around so the healthier options are in front, rather than shoved to the back behind chips and cookies.

Ottumwa’s policy-makers must enforce at least one item from each section and implement at least two permanent changes to nudge people into healthier behaviors, such as “complete streets,” said Josh Gettings, owner of Riverside Cyclery.

At least half of the community’s top 20 employers need to become Blue Zones worksites and at least 25 percent of independent or locally owned restaurants and 25 percent of grocery stores must become Blue Zones restaurants and grocery stores. Another small change restaurants can make is instead of listing french fries as the first side option, swing those to the bottom of the menu and put salads on top.

“We are not about removing choice, but giving the healthy choice an equal chance,” McClure said.

At least 25 percent of Ottumwa’s schools must be certified as Blue Zones schools and have established wellness councils. For example, McClure said, simply changing the order of a child’s day by putting recess before lunch rather than vice versa, can help them play better, eat better and get back to “classroom mode” faster.

“Many communities are resistant to change, but I think Ottumwa is more so,” said Lori Reeves, chair of the Rural Health Education Partnership department at Indian Hills. “We can’t do one big change, we need to do little changes at a time.”

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