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Effort underway to make WNC counties ‘Blue Zone’ certified

On the Greek island of Ikaria, its population of 10,000 people live an average of 10 years longer than Americans, have about half the rate of heart disease, lower rates of cancer and obesity and zero cases of dementia.

Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and New York Times bestselling author, explored Ikeria and other rare places throughout the world that enjoy those kinds of long and healthy lives before founding the Blue Zones Project with his brother Tony Buettner. 

Their goal of starting the business was to take the commonalities found in those rare places and help communities around the world enjoy a higher quality of life. Now there are 42 communities working toward the goal of becoming and Blue Zone, and Sally Taylor of Highlands is spearheading an effort to add Jackson and Macon County communities to that list. 

“There are areas in the world — maybe seven or nine of them in the U.S. — where people live long and happy lives with a high quality of life,” Taylor told the Franklin Town Council during its Jan. 7 meeting. Communities in Florida, Texas, Hawaii, Oklahoma, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Oregon are all now designated as Blue Zones. 

The project is something many municipal leaders were made aware of last year during a League of Municipalities conference in which Tony Buettner spoke. 

“I saw the presentation and was pretty fired up by it,” said Franklin Councilmember Brandon McMahan. “I found it very inspirational and I left excited about every aspect of it. It’s a daunting thing but we already have someone to spearhead it.”

Based on Blue Zones research, there are nine commonalities among those five places in the world where people live the longest: moving naturally, having a sense of purpose, plant-based diet, a focus on family, not eating until you’re completely full, drinking alcohol moderately and regularly, finding a way to manage stress, taking part in some kind of faith-based practice and being part of the right community or tribe. 

“In these communities people move naturally — they’re not working out in the gym — they have a sense of purpose, they somehow control their stress levels, they don’t eat much meat, they stop eating when they’re 80 percent full,” Taylor said. 

While drinking alcohol moderately is one of the commonalities, Taylor pointed out there is a Seventh-day Adventist Blue Zone community in California that doesn’t drink at all and that designated communities do not have to abide by all nine of the Blue Zones secrets.

Taylor said the effort starts with getting Blue Zones Project folks to come to the area and hold a formal presentation for stakeholders to learn about the process. Then the company will send out representatives to perform a site visit and evaluate the communities wanting to get designated. After a site visit, Blue Zones will prepare a specific plan for Macon and Jackson communities to work toward becoming a designated Blue Zone. The plan could include recommendations for more sidewalks or trails, better food options in the schools or other projects that will improve quality of life. 

“I think all our communities are already close to being Blue Zones — I don’t think it would take much to get us there,” Taylor said. “I’ve already raised enough money for the presentation but the next step will be harder — that will be to buy the site visit and the plan for the communities.”

Taylor said she included Jackson and Macon towns in the project to be able to meet the 25,000 population requirement for Blue Zones. While she wasn’t asking for any type of financial commitment from the towns, she said she just wanted their support as she moved forward with fundraising efforts. All donations for the project will go through a nonprofit entity. 

“It requires community support and buy-in for everyone to be successful,” she said. 

Councilmember David Culpepper asked if or when the town would be financially obligated to the project. 

Taylor said the town would not be financially obligated to anything unless the town chose to implement a program or a project recommendation outlined in the Blue Zone plan. Ideally, funds would be raised privately or through grant programs. 

“Once you’re branded as a Blue Zone, you can apply for a number of grants,” Taylor said. 

Other council members said they were fine with Taylor proceeding with the effort and were open to hearing more information when Blue Zone Project makes the formal presentation, which is tentatively set for sometime in June. 

For more information about Blue Zones Project, visit www.bluezonesproject.com.

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