IC seeks to sing blues

BY IAN MURPHY | APRIL 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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Iowa City has an upcoming case of the blues, but it’s not a bad thing.

Iowa City is in the Blue Zone Demonstration Site stage, said Dan Buetner, founder of Blue Zones and identifier of the original areas. This means Iowa City is in the process of becoming an official Blue Zone community. Blue Zones are cities and areas where people have been identified to live longer than average.

On Thursday evening, the city launched the Blue Zone Initiative by Healthways well-being programs, in partnership with Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, as a part of Gov. Terry Brandstad’s push to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016. Community members gathered at the Sheraton in Iowa City to celebrate the kickoff of the program.

“Iowa City is a community that takes healthy living seriously,” said Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek.

Iowa City will be the 15th Iowa community to seek Blue Zone certification. The project was brought to the city by the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce in 2012. Mason City and Waterloo are the only cities to achieve the certification so far.

The name itself has little to with the actual color of a place.

“We called it a Blue Zone because we were using blue ink when we were zeroing in,” Buetner said.

The process to become a Blue Zone city can take anywhere from 18 months to three years, and transformation must start with the environment, he said.         

“We take the general approach that you’re going to get more done to more people if you optimize people’s environments than if you try to tell them to be fitter or eat better,” Buetner said.

To do that, Blue Zones identified the “Power Nine,” nine ways to live better they identified from studying the original four blue zones.

Among the Power Nine are the “Plant Slant” and “Wine @ 5,” which involve eating more greens and enjoying the occasional glass of wine, Buetner said.

Blue Zones also involve a community aspect, emphasizing social connectedness through things like religious services or finding the “right tribe,” another aspect of the power nine, he said.

To find their tribe, volunteers organized people into moai. Moai are groups of friends Buetner and his team observed when first identifying Blue Zones in Okinawa. For Iowa City, moai are groups of five that walk together daily. Buetner said 60 percent of moai established in Albert Lee, Minn., the first city he worked with, are still together from 2009.

The project has strong community support.

Iowa City community members like Jamie Sharp are behind the project.

“I think promotion of health is important, and Iowa City has a chance to be part of something global,” she said.

Buetner met early on in the project with executives from Wellmark. 

“It took only 30 minutes for Dan to say, ‘Why can’t we do this across the whole state,’ ” said Laura Jackson, executive vice president of Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Jackson said the insurance company looked far and long to find ways to help people live better and longer.

“It’s a commitment,” Jackson said to the 300 plus people in attendance. “We are absolutely delighted to have you on this journey.”

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