The Union Democrat
Mother Lode team explains new ‘Blue Zone’ initiative
Adventist Health Sonora is funding and promoting an initiative called the Blue Zones Project in Tuolumne County, but what is it and what will it do?
“Blue zones” are areas around the world where people live longer with lower rates of chronic disease. Researchers found that people in these regions live to be 100 years old at a rate 10 times higher than in the United States, according to www.bluezones.com.
In Tuolumne County, the Blue Zones Project initiative aims to work with local leaders on the goal of making the county a healthier place to grow up, live, work, play and grow old.
One way they hope to accomplish that could include joining forces with area grocery stores to replace soda and candy at the check-out line with healthier options, such as carrots and bottled water, according to Kristi Conforti, public policy advocate for Blue Zones Tuolumne County.
“It’s time. The community is ready for this,” she said. “With all of the farmers markets and small farms in the area this is the perfect opportunity.”
Conforti is part of a team recently hired by Adventist Health Sonora to be in charge of the initiative. She was previously the executive director of Sierra Senior Providers Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs the county’s Meals on Wheels program.
Arnold resident Tyler Summersett, who grew up in Tuolumne County and previously worked for the Tuolumne County Transportation Council as a senior transportation planner and trails coordinator, serves as the local initiative’s executive director.
Summersett and Conforti are joined in their quest by Judy Stoltenberg, of Twain Harte, who will head marketing and community engagement; Cody Nelson, of Twain Harte, a senior event and office specialist; and Elyse DooleyBailey, of Sonora, who will serve as an organizational lead.
The five-member team is currently setting up new headquarters at 31 N. Washington St. in downtown Sonora, the former site of Advantage Mortgage.
“The Blue Zones Project reflects a desire to help turn the tide on a declining quality of life for Americans that is totally avoidable,” Summersett said. “Due to a lack of movement and poor choices
of food, combined with declining social connectivity, many Americans, including folks in Tuolumne County, will suffer more disease in their older age and poorer overall productivity.”
One goal of the initiative is to make the county a better place to live than it currently is by providing more opportunities for residents to connect in meaningful ways by learning to cook healthier foods, participating in walking or biking and receiving support to quit smoking, vaping or other negative vices currently impacting their wellbeing, Summersett said.
Local restaurants who want to participate can do so by making changes to their menu, or adding a special healthy menu, with more vegetable and fruit offerings.
Participating worksites can implement safer and healthier policies regarding tobacco use, including setting up designated smoking areas away from those who do not smoke.
Making exercise more accessible is one part of the initiative Conforti said the team is focused on, a real challenge given the unique topography of the Mother Lode. Steep hills make it hard for those with any impediment to traverse the landscape, so making new open spaces, like the Dragoon Gulch Trail area, is a priority.
“The Blue Zones Project is unique because it is a community-wide approach to improving health and wellness in Tuolumne County,” Conforti said. “The focus is on bringing like-minded people together, supporting each other, and encouraging small changes that lead to big results.”
Origin of ‘blue zones’
In 2004, the Blue Zones Project was born after
New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic, the National Institute on Aging and the world’s best longevity researchers to identify blue zone pockets around the world and study the characteristics of each one in an effort to explain, and hopefully mimic, their unusually long-life spans.
According to Buettner, the Blue Zones Project has evolved into a global movement that is inspiring people to live longer, more active lives and offers a unique opportunity for individuals, organizations, and communities to make permanent, healthy changes to the environment where they live, work and play.
The history of Blue Zones began more than 20 years ago when Buettner organized an expedition to Okinawa, Japan, in 1999. Exploration of Sardinia followed.
In 2005, Buettner wrote
the cover story, “Secrets to Long Life,” for National Geographic, and subsequently trademarked the term “Blue Zones” in the U.S.
Expeditions to uncover the secrets to longevity were undertaken to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda, California, and Ikaria, Greece.
In Loma Linda, a community of approximately 9,000 Adventists are the core of America’s blue zone region. These people live as much as a decade longer than other Americans, and much of their longevity is attributed to a vegetarian diet and regular exercise, according to Buettner.
The first Blue Zones Project was launched in 2009 by Buettner in the U.S. in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Other regions include Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach in California; Klamath Falls, Oregon; Southwest Florida; Spencer, Iowa; Central Hawaii and Fort Worth, Texas.
Participating communities have seen obesity and smoking rates drop as a result of the initiative.
“This is notable, because all of the people I run into want to be healthier, want to enjoy their lives to the greatest degree possible and are interested in maximizing the years they get,” Summersett said. “I believe the Blue Zones Project is a perfect fit for Tuolumne County.”
Realage test and QR codes
Currently, the goal of the BZ Tuolumne County team is to gather data from community members through a QR Code survey, Realage, developed specifically for Blue Zones Project locations.
“Our main focus right now is getting 700 residents to participate in taking the Realage Test. You scan the QR Code with your phone,” said Stoltenberg, who handles marketing and community engagement.
A QR code is a type of barcode that can be easily read by a digital device that stores information as a series of pixels in a square-shaped grid. Many smartphones have built-in QR readers, or they can be easily downloaded, making the technology more accessible for the masses. Sharecare is a digital wellbeing organization that has partnered with Blue Zones to help communities accelerate transformation using state-ofthe-art-technology.
The Realage Test is free, easy to navigate and takes roughly 15 minutes to complete using the Sharecare app. Through the app a person can set goals, track health progress, or even join others in a Blue Zones Project challenge.
“The data will be the baseline for community health. Our interventions will be based on this information,” Stoltenberg said.
Conforti credits the Realage Test with helping her to recognize little changes she could make in her day-to-day life in order to be more healthy and feel better.
“When I first took the Realage Test, I was horrified to find that my Realage came out to be seven months older than my chronological age. Two months later, I took the test again and found out that my RealAge was now only five months older than my chronological age. I attribute this success to small changes such as walking more, increasing social connections, and making healthier food choices,” she said.
By making the healthy choice the easy one, the Blue Zones Project seeks to limit disease in the community, and the Realage Test is the way they gather data necessary to address issues individually and on the community level.
Once the downtown location is ready and open, they encourage residents to get involved. Partnerships and volunteer opportunities will be available to anyone interested in living a better, healthier, happier life by connecting with other residents and taking an active interest in the well-being of Tuolumne County and its residents.
“Right now, we are creating the blueprints,” said Nelson. “In March we will kick off the official opening of Blue Zones Tuolumne County with an event. We are really excited.”
“This will be a great project to help Tuolumne County recover from the impacts of COVID-19 by restoring social connectivity and instilling a sense of community-wide pride,” Summersett said. “We cannot wait to get started.”