Building Blocks for Well-Being

Nationwide well-being initiative sets sights on Oregon.

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 Could the formula for longer, healthier lives be as simple as fresh food, meaningful work and a nightly glass of wine? Sky-high life expectancies and low illness rates in communities around the world suggest it really could.

Longevity research by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner a decade back revealed something surprising: small pockets within Costa Rica, Japan, Greece, Italy and the United States consistently had people living up to ten times longer than the average. These “Blue Zones” shared many practices in common including: plant-based diets, close-knit relationships, regular exercise, practicing a faith and relaxation.

Envisioning the formula as a way to combat soaring U.S. healthcare costs and chronic disease rates, Buettner partnered with population health company Healthways to create the Blue Zones Project, now running well-being initiatives in 26 communities, including Oregon — ranked a middling 31st in the 2016 Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index.

Blue Zones Project was brought here by lead funder Cambia Health Foundation in support of Oregon Healthiest State, and employs two strategies: a community-led “Demonstration Communities” initiative focused on comprehensive cross-sector well-being improvement, and tools tailored for the settings that strongly influence day-to-day health — worksites, grocery stores, restaurants, civic organizations, faith-based communities and schools.

“Blue Zones Project is not a pill that you take and see results immediately,” says Blue Zones Project Oregon Executive Director Aaron Patnode. “It’s a collaborative effort and set of actions that help individuals, organizations or communities make small but lasting changes that better support healthy options and outcomes.”

Despite being a rural health care hub, Oregon Demonstration Community Klamath Falls definitely struggles with poor health, notes Klamath County Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris, but this community is committed to improve.
Guided by local staff and volunteers, the initiative is funneling that drive into frank conversations about well-being — and a Community Blueprint to address things like healthy food access and walkability.

“This isn’t about lecturing people that they need to go on a diet or get more exercise,” says Minty Morris. “This is about setting up our community in a way that makes the healthy choice the easy choice.”

The Cambia Health Foundation funding has made it possible for the initiative to offer free well-being tools to every Oregon-based organization seeking to create a lasting wellness effort. These resources are part of the Blue Zones Project Approved program.

Organizations all over the state are participating, especially worksites. Over three dozen representing nearly 40,000 employees have already registered to receive well-being assessments and customized consultations, including Portland’s R&H Construction.

R&H is offering things like nutritional coaching and tobacco-free worksites to its 200-plus employees — concrete yardsticks to sustainably measure well-being, notes R&H employee and Blue Zones Project coordinator Karen Swanzy-Sidlo: “We don’t look at this as a whole lifestyle change, but as one thing at a time. It helps with health insurance rates and productivity, but there’s so much more to it. We want employees to come to work because it’s a good place to work.”

Ready to reach further still, Blue Zones Project will soon accept applications for a second Oregon Demonstration Community.

Will this approach really move the dial on Oregon’s well-being indicators? Minty Morris thinks so: “This is something that’s really hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be healthier? Who doesn’t want to live in a community that’s vibrant and thriving and striving to be better?”

For more information on the Blue Zones Project in Oregon, go to The initiative will announce details for its Demonstration Community application process this summer.