A recent article about the Blue Zones Project portrayed a blurry view of this community-led initiative and its beneficial impact to the Holy City. We invited Blue Zones Project to Charleston through the city of Charleston Health and Wellness Advisory Committee because of the Blue Zones Project’s outstanding track record in implementing evidence-based policies and practices to improve overall community health.
As a physician devoted to well-being and population-based health improvement, I know firsthand the devastating impact diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other lifestyle-related conditions have on our community. And I am passionate about shifting ominous trends that not only impact the daily lives of many of our citizens, but every business through rising health care costs and decreased productivity.
As a forward-thinking well-being leader, fortunate to have worked on a national scale, I see the Blue Zones Project as an unprecedented opportunity to coalesce and propel existing efforts by local organizations working diligently to move the needle toward better health. As evidenced by the overwhelming community support in three different initial Charleston Blue Zones Project site visits, hundreds of Charlestonians agree.
Where you live matters. According to the Danish Twin Study, 80 percent of our health is determined by lifestyle and environment. In Charleston, our health profile, across all demographics and racial and socio-economic sectors, is alarming. We may rank higher than our neighbors, but we are still failing miserably. Three in five people are overweight or obese, and two in five are not physically active. And it’s not just physical health; two in five residents suffer or struggle with their hope and purpose. What if our community could increase access to healthier food choices and create more walkable and bikeable options? What if we could connect more and find more meaning? What if living in Charleston could support greater health and well-being?
There is no one simple solution for improving well-being. Blue Zones Project offers individuals and organizations a broad array of evidence-based options to choose from based on preference. Choice defines the Blue Zones Project approach, which makes it personally empowering. Work sites, faith-based organizations, schools, grocery stores and restaurants can participate for free. Local teams are hired and work with volunteers to bring together a collective focus on community health. The initiative has worked in coastal communities like Naples, Florida, in addition to rural and urban centers with difficult health challenges. Blue Zones Project is a community-led “we project” that makes healthier choices more accessible where we live, work and play.
Over the past 18 months a team of local well-being leaders, with strong support from the mayor, researched and vetted whether this project is right for our community. Over 500 community members representing our diverse makeup took time to learn about the project and provide feedback in presentations, focus groups and meetings. As multitudes filed into Founder’s Hall for a keynote presentation in February, the energy and excitement was palpable. Charlestonians want our community to be the kind of place where they enjoy a long, healthy life, pursue their passions and raise families.
Our efforts have been made possible thanks to the generous financial support of the Medical University of South Carolina, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Roper St. Francis and Sodexo. As we move forward in securing funding for the Blue Zones Project, we are speaking with sponsors looking to make an investment back into the community they serve. The project’s financials are under consideration
as the project’s scope and funding pledges are being finalized.
Yes, there is a cost to implement
a wide-reaching, proven well-being initiative — one lose to $10 million over almost five years. But we are already paying
astronomically more in health care costs and lost productivity. Simply put, the cost of maintaining the status quo is unsustainable. Is Blue Zones Project a panacea? No, but it is a big community step in the right direction, one that will also help elevate and further the work of existing organizations and smaller initiatives.
Charleston is deeply rooted in history. Today our community has the opportunity to build a healthier tomorrow. Blue Zones Project focuses on providing healthier choices for everyone while improving the environment to support a vibrant, connected and healthy community. The impact will be felt today and for generations to come.
Ann Kulze, M.D., is a member of the Charleston Health and Wellness Advisory Committee.