Entering the Blue Zones: Live long and prosper

  • Kupuna at CrossFit AllStar make exercise look easy. (PHOTO BY LANDRY FULLER)
    Kupuna at CrossFit AllStar make exercise look easy. (PHOTO BY LANDRY FULLER)
  • Planting a family garden is one way to bond and provides healthier food options at home. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Planting a family garden is one way to bond and provides healthier food options at home. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • Fruits and vegetables are among the “top longevity foods” according to Blue Zones Founder Dan Buettner. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Fruits and vegetables are among the “top longevity foods” according to Blue Zones Founder Dan Buettner. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • Walking groups combine physical and social activities. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Walking groups combine physical and social activities. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • Four generations take on the new Blue Zones Project - North Hawaii. (PHOTO BY GEORGE FULLER |SPECIAL TO NORTH HAWAII NEWS)
    Four generations take on the new Blue Zones Project – North Hawaii. (PHOTO BY GEORGE FULLER |SPECIAL TO NORTH HAWAII NEWS)

At the young age of 87, Waimea resident Betsey Kansako loves to work out on her favorite rowing station at CrossFit AllStar each Thursday morning. She is part of the kupuna group, comprised of members 80 years old and up. Betsey is the youngest in her class.

“I come to CrossFit to stay healthy and will keep at this as long as I can,” she says. She rows about 1500 strokes each week.

Also in her class are Chiyo Pai and Blossom Jamison, both 92, and Adury Mizokami who is 96. The gym’s oldest member is Kameichi Yawata. He’s 101.

Most of the kupuna members were born in Hawaii or share Japanese ancestry. Their lifestyle and cultural practices have paid off in long and healthy lives, largely due to how they eat, quality time they spend with family and social activities.

Not much has changed in Fujioka’s diet over the years. “I like aku fish, cabbage, tomatoes and green tea,” she says.

Fujioka could be a model resident for the Blue Zones North Hawaii Project, a new three-year initiative that kicks off this Saturday, Oct. 17. It employs evidence-based ways to help people live longer, better lives by taking a systematic, environmental approach that focuses on optimizing community policies, social networks and built environments where people spend their time.

How Blues Zones Began

With the help of a National Geographic grant, in 2004 Dan Buettner teamed up with longevity researchers to identify communities around the world where people live measurably longer. He discovered five: the Italian island of Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, CA; Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula; and Ikaria, an isolated Greek island.

After learning their practices firsthand, he released his book, “Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer,” in 2008 summarizing his findings, and developed a program that other communities could follow and customize to their specific health challenges. Being active, finding purpose in life, resting, eating healthier food, and making family a priority are some of the key components.

Blue Zones Project® has now been implemented in more than 30 communities on the mainland, run largely by community members and volunteers. Among the achievements have been raising life expectancy for residents and lowered health care costs.

Connecting to Hawaii

Although Hawaii boasts the second-most centenarians in the country according to U.S. News & World Report, over the past 15 years obesity, cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart disease rates have increased. While the kupuna have traditionally lived longer lives, their children may be first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

In 2013, The Hawaii Medical Service Association (HMSA) decided to partner with Blue Zones Project® to address the health care crisis. Soon after, Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi joined the effort. HMSA is the major sponsor for the Blue Zones Project Hawaii.

Kenoi has high hopes for the program and its success.

“We want to empower all members of our community to take responsibility for their health and well-being,” he says. “The Blue Zones Project can ensure that our existing infrastructure, future projects and planning decisions make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Creating the Blue Zones North Hawaii Plan

This past Feb., North Hawaii was one of three communities in the state selected as a Blue Zones Project demonstration site. The three-year regional program includes Waikoloa, Puako, Kawaihae, Hawi, Kapaau, Waimea, Honokaa and Paauilo.

“We chose North Hawaii because the leadership has an appetite for real healthy change, and after our assessment, we felt the community was ready to embrace an environmental approach to well-being,” Buettner says.

North Hawaii residents banded together to develop a blueprint intended to make permanent environmental, social and policy changes. Six volunteer committees focus on worksites, restaurants/grocery stores, faith-based organizations, schools, engagement and policy improvements.

Blue Zones also hired several local residents to run the program. Paauilo native Carol Ignacio is the community program manager island-wide, while Waimea resident Mari-Ela Chock serves as statewide engagement lead and Melony Tavares is the engagement lead for North Hawaii.

“I am born and raised on this beautiful island I call home. What happens here is important to me,” Ignacio says. “When this opportunity to be involved in helping to make this place a healthier one for everyone, it did not take much for me to say yes.”

Tina Stuart, a registered nurse and owner of Personal Solutions for Seniors, has volunteered hundreds of hours to the project.

“Since I am kupuna, it would be wonderful for the senior citizens to benefit from the project but I am also looking at the generations ahead who are not eating healthy and are spending more time on technology instead of outside physical activity,” she says. “If you teach the children to fish, garden, make healthy choices, exercise and use their bodies to keep them fit, you provide them with tools that can make major health changes throughout the generations, effecting their parents and grandparents as well.”

Waimea resident Catherine Rosasco Mitchell sits on Blue Zones North Hawaii’s school and church committees.

“Blue Zones is about becoming an even stronger community and helping each other, especially our keiki, to learn how to get back to the old Hawaiian ways: the Aloha of family, community and living off the land,” she says.

North Hawaii Council Members Margaret Wille and Valerie Poindexter see potential in the project to support related policies that they can help push forward.

“What is so great is that we are all embarking on this pathway and adventure together, supporting each other in an effort to incorporate healthier routines into our daily lives,” Wille comments. “I’m working on improving our mass transit system and tying that system to easily accessible pedestrian and bike options to encourage more non-vehicular travel and decrease dependence on automobiles. A related short-term goal will be increasing the network of walking, hiking and bike ways in each of our communities.”

Kick-Off Event

The Blue Zones North Hawaii Project officially launches this Saturday at a free community event at Town Hall/Kahilu Theatre from 3 to 6 p.m. The event highlights opportunities available to all residents to transform their well-being through engagement in the project. Founder Dan Buettner will speak at 4 p.m.

Activities range from healthy cooking and garden demos to Zumba, fitness and meditation classes, and food booths with gelato, Pau pizza, Stabucks coffee and cold-pressed Kohana Wai juices to name a few. In the Downshift Lounge, free massages, healthy wine sampling, and free giveaways are among the scheduled options.

For kids, the Keiki Zone will feature rock climbing, bounce houses, a PATH bike rodeo, photo booth and games, as well as free daycare. Local entertainment will be provided by the Waikoloa Ukulele Group, Honokaa High School Jazz Band, Alohi Polynesian Dance and the Kohala Tae Ko Drummers.

To learn more about the event, Blue Zones Project North Hawaii or ways to volunteer visit http://hawaii.bluezonesproject.com, the Blue Zones Project – North Hawaii FB page or contact Melony at 217-7452.

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