Iowa City Blue Zone Project urges religious community involvement


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As a Blue Zones community, Iowa City residents are expected to follow the “Power 9” guidelines — one of which includes belonging to a faith-based community — but local officials have no qualms about the religious aspect.

The Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce encourages Iowa City residents to engage in faith-based groups in order to live longer and healthier lives.

While city officials recommend following the “Power 9” guidelines provided for Blue Zones communities, one Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce official said none of the nine guides to healthy living would require residents to follow them.

“The Power 9 are just over-arching concepts, so none of them will be made into specific policies that residents will be mandated to adhere by,” said Rachel Schunk, vice president of communications at the Chamber of Commerce.

Commitment to a religious organization is one of the “Power 9” principles outlined by the Blue Zones Project, which deemed Iowa City a Blue Zones community earlier this year.

The Blue Zones Project is an initiative by Healthways well-being programs and health-insurance company Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield to instill healthier living throughout the nation. Blue Zones communities serve as models of health and longevity.

Shannon Sanders, statewide engagement lead for the Blue Zones Project, said the nine lifestyle guidelines were influenced by research conducted by author and public speaker Dan Buettner. Through his research, he found that those who are part of a faith-based community live longer.

Lois Cole, the religious education director for the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City, said humanity today typically lacks strong community relationships.

“I think what we’ve lost in our society is the support of community and the networking that we find in a community,” she said. “The community focus would be wonderful because that’s so much of what we have missing in our lives.”

University of Iowa classics Assistant Professor Robert Cargill said research proves people involved in a community-based organization are typically prosperous.

“Some research has shown individuals who are actively involved in organizations that are dedicated to the betterment of the community around them tend to be happier and healthier,” he said.

Though Cargill was unfamiliar with the Blue Zones Project, he said faith-based involvement pertains to secular humanists and atheists as much as it does to Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims.

Kari Vogelgesang, a member of the community who identifies as an atheist, said there are other ways for atheists to live happier, healthier, and longer lives.

“You can be charitable, kind, and physically and emotionally healthy all while being an atheist,” she said.

While this may be true, Dave Muscato, the director of public relations for American Atheists, said it is important for nonbelievers to belong to a community.

“Many people who become atheists stop attending churches for obvious reasons, but they miss out on the social inclusiveness and community aspects when they do this,” he said.

But Muscato said nonbelievers could combat this by joining a group that welcomes atheists.

“Many atheists choose to attend atheist-friendly churches … like Unitarian-Universalist churches or ethical societies and humanist groups,” he said.

Cole said the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City serves people with unorthodox beliefs.

“What we find in our society is people have difficulty returning to a faith-based community because they don’t want orthodoxy,” she said. “[Some people] feel like they can’t quite fit in a very orthodox faith.”

Schunk said Healthways, one of the organizations underwriting the Blue Zones Project, will start building a healthy living road map for the Iowa City community next year.

Iowa City isn’t the only city pushing for healthy living.

Kristy Staker, Cedar Rapids Blue Zones engagement team co-head, said Cedar Rapids will follow a similar format — the city will create a “Blue Print” this month.

“This Blue Print will guide our community toward Blue Zones certification by making permanent changes to our environment, policy, and social networks,” Staker said.

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