Courier Staff Writer
Three communities in southeast Iowa are continuing to inch forward in their dream of becoming Blue Zones-certified.
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Healthways named nine small communities Blue Zones demonstration sites and 12 large communities as finalists on Tuesday.
The Blue Zones Project is a component of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Healthiest State Initiative to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016.
Wapello County Public Health Clinical Director Lynelle Diers said that Ottumwa, along with the five other communities who hosted site visits in the spring, will have a choice this fall. They can either do a teleconference with Blue Zones officials or they can host another, smaller site visit.
The six finalists who did not have a site visit in the spring will go through a “full-blown” site visit this fall, Diers said.
“We still need to work on getting our numbers up for community support,” she said. “They’re still very important to become certified. That is the ultimate goal is to get the community certified, to increase economic development and make it a healthier community for all residents here.”
To become certified, a community needs at least 20 percent participation and as of Tuesday, Ottumwa is 5 percent away from that goal at 15.09 percent participation.
As of press time Tuesday, 37.1 percent of Fairfield’s population and 12.5 percent of Oskaloosa’s population had pledged their support.
Nine communities with populations of less than 10,000 were named Blue Zones demonstration sites Tuesday. They include Algona, Audubon, Decorah, Fairfield, Harlan, Osage, Red Oak, Spirit Lake and Woodbine.
“We’re very glad to be included and we’re looking forward to moving forward on new and existing wellness projects,” said Fairfield Council Member Michael Halley, who also serves on Fairfield’s Blue Zones team.
Fairfield already has some wellness plans in place, including increasing walkability and bikeability in town, fully utilizing the trails system, encouraging healthy diets, expanding wellness programs in the business community and smoking cessation.
“The Blue Zones project will help unify and give us opportunities to move forward,” Halley said.
Fairfield is also in the process of expanding its parks and recreation facilities.
“I think part of the reason we were chosen is that we have a lot in place already,” Halley said. “We’re already going down that path, but we’re hoping this opportunity to seek Blue Zones designation will boost our efforts.”
Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy said Blue Zones can help the town because of its specific design to reach certification.
“Approaches like grocery stores and restaurants to encourage people toward a healthier diet, approaches for schools to encourage better behavior, lifestyle and diet,” Malloy said. “We’re also very excited about working with all of our businesses. Blue Zones is really about social activity together, planning and achieving goals together to promote wellness and health.”
Malloy said business owners will appreciate it because “scientific evidence shows that productivity increases and health care costs decrease with people getting sick less and making less claims on insurance.”
Blue Zones also encourage partnership and collaboration with other communities across the state.
“We love our community being known and appreciated as a place that gets things done, that shows the way in many areas,” Malloy said. “We think in the area of health and wellness we can really do that.”
Having a college like the Maharishi University of Management doesn’t hurt.
“Having a university where meditation is taught and promoted is seen as a benefit and asset,” Malloy said. “Meditation is becoming much more mainstream. I really enjoy meditating. It’s a way to relieve stress and stress is the basis of many diseases.”
This week, Ottumwa’s Blue Zones committee will review the entire Blue Zones process during training.
If chosen as a demonstration site in January, Ottumwa will receive technical support from Healthways, including the hire of a full-time project director and community coordinator from within the Ottumwa community.
“All other individuals involved will be all voluntary,” Diers said, which is another aspect she said Ottumwa needs to work on. “The ultimate plan will be developed by the community. We will have three forums, or focus groups. Out of those, that is what will drive the plan.”
Dates have not yet been set for the forums, but Diers said they will likely begin after the holiday season this winter.
“Each community does it in different ways,” Diers said. “Each community has its own dynamics. What is here in Ottumwa is not the same as what is in Oskaloosa.”
Diers said she thinks Ottumwa has come far from when the Blue Zones process began a year ago.
“We’ve been trying to draw in the diversity of the community, because we’re not just focused on health providers,” Diers said. “We’re trying to work with schools, college, media, private corporations. We’re trying to educate everyone on what this is about. It’s not about going on a diet, it’s about being healthy.”
She said the goal is not to “preach.”
“We want people more aware, because it ... talks about relationships, about family first, about good friends,” Diers said. “It goes beyond just what you eat and what you do.”
It’s the environment, lifestyles and policies that will have to change, she said.
“I don’t know of any 90-year-old that’s going to exercise her whole life,” Diers said. “How many 90-year-olds do you know that are on diets?”
Diers stressed that what a person does to his or her body in younger years will affect their body later in life.
For your information
Cedar Falls, Mason City, Spencer and Waterloo were already named Blue Zones demonstration sites in May.
Ottumwa and Oskaloosa joined 10 other communities as finalists to move forward in the selection process. They include Altoona, Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Clinton, Davenport, Dubuque, Iowa City, Marion, Muscatine and Sioux City.
These communities submitted applications in August in the second and final selection round for communities of this size.
In January, the final six communities with populations above 10,000 will be named Blue Zones demonstration sites, for a total of 10 demonstration sites in communities of this size.
For more information, go to www.bluezonesproject.com.