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Blue Zones Project Hopes To Foster Happier, Healthier Living in Dodge County

Back in January, we featured an interview with the leaders of an ambitious effort to improve the health of people living in Dodge County (see below).  The Blue Zones Project takes a page from the examples set by people who live in places with the longest life expectancy and looks at how those practices can be put into place.

The Dodge County effort is the first of its kind in Wisconsin, and while its partners are people, organizations and businesses across the community, it’s spearheaded at Beaver Dam Community Hospitals. 

Blue Zones President and CEO Kim Miller, Project Leader Linda Klinger, and Mel Bruins, chief talent officer at Beaver Dam Community Hospitals, speak about some of the specific health issues the Blue Zones project set out to address and the progress being made:

Before the Blue Zones initiative was officially implemented, it was reported that 30% of the population of Beaver Dam admitted to binge drinking, 20% of people smoked, and a large percentage of the population were obese and inactive and/or  living with diabetes.

"Blue Zones works to change the environment that we live in. When we set out to make a change on our own, the only tool that we've got is our own willpower. But when we combine that with a supportive environment where healthy choices surround us makes that healthy choice the easier choice," says project leader Linda Klinger.

Community partnerships were established in Beaver Dam, Horicon, Juneau, and Mayville to work in tandem with hospitals. For example, employers add wellness movement classes, restaurants offer more vegetarian and healthy options, and grocery stores set up Blue Zone check out lines that don't display the sodas and sweets you typically see before you check out at the register.

"If the hospital would be the only one initiating this, it could not be as successful as it will be by having all of those communities involved and we're seeing that happen," says Kim Miller. "We're seeing people come together - people who didn't even know that they had common interests  before, but through the process have learned that they do. And people who are really fired up about making positive changes and seeing the communities change."

The Blue Zones project was met with initial skepticism, but those spearheading the effort expect it to continue to grow. Mel Bruins notes when the research examining Dodge County first started in 2013, the county's ranking was 64, but has steadily improved every year to a most recent score of 36. "Every year our county health ranking has improved since we've started Healthy Communities, Healthy Lives. So we're interested to see what kind of pace of change we are able to make since implementing Blue Zones," she says.

Klinger says that it has been critical to utilize grassroots organization. "I think it's really about finding the stakeholders in your community...I think every community has people who are interested in making a change, but it's not until you get all of those people together that you really start to get some traction," she says.

Original Story from January 4, 2017:

Linda Klinger and Kim Miller from Beaver Dam Community Hospitals speaking with Lake Effect's Mitch Teich.

Leaders at a medical center in Beaver Dam are leading communities in Dodge County in a multi-year effort to be happier and healthier. 

It's the first Wisconsin site for an international initiative called the Blue Zones Project. The project aims to help communities make healthier choices by making them more accessible.

Credit Courtesy of Pierman Communications.
Beaver Dam Community Hospitals in Dodge County is spearheading the local Blue Zones Project for Dodge County.

"One of the key things we say about the Blue Zones project is that we help make the healthy choice the easy choice, and removing a lot of those barriers that some of the individuals in Dodge County, that they have, is really going to help them be set up for success in their well-being initiative," says Linda Klinger, the Blue Zones project leader in Dodge County. 

The project, started by the company Healthways, looked to communities with the world's longest-living residents to see what they were doing right. They found nine commonalities, which have become the basis of their initiative to help people make healthier decisions.

Credit Blue Zones Project
Blue Zones' Power of 9.

Blue Zones calls them the "Power of 9," or the nine secrets to having a longer life. They include improving community and familial relationships, encouraging healthier eating habits throughout public spaces and improving mental health through mindfulness and purpose workshops.

"We're really looking at changing the environment," says Klinger. "When we look at longevity and we look at well-being, a little bit of is genetics, a little bit of it is access to healthcare, but a lot of it and the majority of it is the environment. So making that healthy choice more achievable for folks." 

Credit Courtesy of Pierman Communications
Courtesy of Pierman Communications
Mitch Teich speaking with Linda Klinger and Kim Miller.

Dodge County will be the 31st community to implement Blue Zones. The first was Albert Lea, Minnesota, which has already had a lot of success with the program. 

"They saw their health insurance claims be reduced and their actual health metrics improve over the seven year period of time that they've been in the project," says Kim Miller, President and CEO at Beaver Dam Community Hospitals. 

It's not just counties that have implemented Blue Zones. Iowa has put the program to work in ten communities throughout the state, and has already seen marked improvements in quality of life for their residents.
In Beaver Dam, they are implementing - initially - a three year project. "We want to see this continue past that three-year timeframe, so... we'll be looking back at our metrics and looking at those improvements, just like Albert Lea has done," says Miller.  

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.