Health Makeover – City Edition: Can cities remodel to become healthier?

Catchy title for a new tv reality show? Maybe, but the concept has merit. Just as houses on Home Makeover are in dire need of remodeling, cities in the United States are in dire need of better health. Healthcare in this country already accounts for 17.3% of GDP and is expected to nearly double to 4.5 trillion dollars -19.3% of GDP- by 2019. The question is, how do we make cities healthier?

Dan Buettner -a well known speaker on the subjects of life and happiness –  appeared on CNN to talk about his new project to give health makeovers to three California cities – Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, and Manhattan Beach. The Blue Zones Vitality Projects will follow Huettner’s previous work in Albert Lea, Minnesota. That town saw a significant drop in healthcare cost and sick-days – 50% drop in healthcare cost, 20% drop in employee absenteeism after just one year.

Blue Zones Vitality Program (via wikipedia)

The AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project is divided into several different initiatives.[4] The categories for the initiatives were habitat, social networking, community, and purpose. Some initiatives proved to be specific to one category while others spanned several categories.[5]

  • Walking Moai Program: Over 500 participants joined approximately 70 “walking moais,” which were groups of 4-10 walkers who agreed to meet once a week and walk to a set destination and back. They collectively walked over 75 million steps and approximately 32,000 miles. In addition, Walking Moai participants did over 2,200 hours of volunteer work.[6] Both steps and volunteer hours were compiled for each group as part of an overall Walking Moai competition.[7]
  • Walking School Bus: The Walking School Bus Program found parents and volunteers to walk with groups of children to their respective elementary schools. A walking bus is said to encourage children to walk more, help build social networks, and assist in keeping kids safe on their way to school.[8]
  • Vitality Compass: The Vitality Compass is an online tool which is now available nationwide. It asks participants questions about their eating habits, sleeping habits, levels of stress, and amount of daily activity. At the end of the online survey, participants are given an age which is their approximate life expectancy. For the purposes of determining the efficacy of certain aspects of the Vitality Project participants were asked to take the Vitality Compass twice; once at the beginning of the program and again at the end. The average life expectancy for those who took the Vitality Compass at the beginning and at the end of the program increased by three years.[9]
  • Volunteering: Vitality Project organizers encouraged participants to volunteer in their community.[10]
  • Employers: Employers were encouraged to make their work environments more amenable to practices leading to good health. For example, some employers added healthy alternatives to vending machines.[11]
  • Grocery Stores: Vitality Project organizers encouraged grocery stores to feature those foods which are thought to engender better health and increased life expectancy.[8][12]
  • Neighborhood Picnics: To encourage community building and social networking, several neighborhood picnics were held and all people in a given neighborhood were invited to attend.[13]
  • Community Gardens: The City of Albert Lea in cooperation with the Vitality Project made space available for citizens of Albert Lea to plant vegetables and flowers.[14]
  • Purpose Workshops: Workshops addressing the importance of finding one’s sense of purpose were provided to Albert Leans for free.[15] The workshops were led by Richard Leider, a nationally known executive coach who is also founder and chairman of The Inventure Group[16]

So what does it take for a city to receive a health makeover? Cities need to have leadership committed to promoting health. The California beach communities that signed up for Huettner’s three year plan all have the support of their local elected officials – mayors, city council members, county departments.

Bike Sign in San Bruno, CA

Health and activity are synonymous. Healthy cities are active cities. Cities can alter their built environment’s to support a more active lifestyle for their residents. These alterations include:

  • widening and connecting sidewalks
  • creating bicycle lanes
  • bringing in farmers markets

Cities must be built for people, rather than for cars. According to Huettner, when cities become more bike/pedestrian oriented, activity levels go up by about 40%. As a result, people can ditch those expensive gym memberships along with their sedentary lifestyles. Potential benefits include decreased stress and obesity resulting in a happier you.

Watch the full video by clicking on the image below.


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