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Klamath embraces Blue Zones

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Klamath embraces Blue Zones

Hospital news | Sunday, March 13, 2016

Contact: Thomas Hottman

At left: Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner polls the audience at the beginning of his keynote address during the Blue Zones Project Kickoff event at the Ross Ragland Theater on Saturday.

More than 1,200 residents turned out for healthy living at a kickoff event for the Blue Zones Project in Klamath Falls Saturday afternoon.

It was standing-room only at the Ross Ragland Theater, where they came to hear how the project plans to re-shape Klamath Fall's environment into one where healthy decisions are not difficult decisions.

Blue Zones Project is a national organization based on the writings of National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner, who researched some of the longest-lived communities in the world, or Blue Zones.

Buettner found a change in environment was more effective than a change in lifestyle when it came to healthy living, and such changes can take place in areas where health has historically been poor.

Klamath Fall's participation in Blue Zones Project was six years in the making after local wellness groups came together to improve Klamath County's abysmal public health record.

At right: Sky Lakes Medical Center CEO Paul Stewart speaks during the Blue Zones Project kickoff event at the Ross Ragland Theater on Saturday.

Paul Stewart, CEO of Sky Lakes Medical Center, told the audience his business and others took notice in 2010 when the first County Health Rankings were published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Klamath County was 32 out of 33 ranked counties in Oregon, and has remained close to or at the bottom of the list since.

"A small group came together and said we've got to do something different," said Stewart.

"We knew it was going to take a broad-based effort to change how we approach health in this community," he continued.

Members of this group attended the Oregon Group Health Summit in fall of 2014 and met with Blue Zones Project organizers. Blue Zones Project was looking for cities to incorporate into their ongoing programs and, out of more than 300 contenders, Klamath Falls become one of 26 cities selected and was the first chosen in the Pacific Northwest.

Since that time, volunteers researched existing resources and identified areas of need and, on Saturday, announced the beginning of various programs to meet those needs.

Cambia Health Foundation is providing a leadership role in funding the project. Cambia is matching 2-1 a Sky Lakes Medical Center contribution of $600,000 over the next three years to fund the project.

Group participation

One unveiled program, and a health concept that has gained significant traction under Blue Zones in the last few years, is the idea of a moai (moe-eye), a close-knit social group found commonly in Okinawa.

Buettner and his colleagues learned close relationships and the presence of dependable friends contributed greatly to the long lives of Okinawans. Moai have become an integral part of Blue Zones cities and Klamath Fall's first groups are set to start meeting this Tuesday.

"People liked the idea of doing things together," said Marilynn Sutherland, director of Klamath County Public Health and part of Klamath Fall's first moai.

Sutherland and multiple members of her department have committed to meet regularly for 10 weeks to walk together and share lunch, both to stay active and be a part of each others' lives. Sutherland said this sense of community is what was most appealing to members of the new group.

Social circles a key

Jessica DuBose, program manager for Klamath Falls Blue Zones Project, said they intend to establish multiple other moai centered around common interest and involving exercise and healthy meals.

DuBose said the groups provide structure to help people meet their health goals, and also expands their social circles.

But Blue Zones did not have to look far for programs in Klamath Falls already pursuing improved community health.

Charlie Wyckoff, manager of the Klamath Falls Farmer's Market, said Blue Zones will become a valuable tool in bridging the communication gaps between groups like his in the area.

"We're all working toward the same direction," he said.

Wyckoff said farmers at the market already emphasize fresh, local, healthy produce and that Blue Zones will help them collaborate with like-minded community members.

Make options appealing

According to Buettner's research, long-lived communities have diets consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and a sparse amount of meat and dairy. He said the goal of Blue Zones will not be to eliminate alternatives to this type of diet, but to make these options more appealing and accessible.

"You don't take the choice away, you just make the healthy choice a little easier," said Buettner.

Such healthy choices involve engaging local restaurants to reduce the calories in their portions and provide healthy food as an alternative to items like fried food. The fried food would not be taken off the menu, but fresh fruit would be offered as the standard choice with the meal and french fries would be available upon request.

Blue Zones has already approached local establishments such as the Ruddy Duck Restaurant at Running Y Ranch and Resort, and chain stores like Subway to become part of its healthy alternative efforts.

A community effort

Stewart said these measures may look like someone coming into town and arbitrarily telling people what they can and can't do. But he said there comes a time when a community needs to consider how an individual's decisions impact the entire group.

"Sometimes, as a society, we have to ask and answer some very hard questions about what is best for all of us," he said.

"I'd like to think I would be free to make the choice to drive 40 or 50 mph through a school zone," he said. "But as a society we've said that the risks that that poses to others — to our children — outweighs my right to make that individual choice."

"Similarly," he continued, "when it comes to health, sometimes we're going to have to make difficult choices and make individual sacrifices in favor of benefiting a larger population."

After seeing Saturday's turnout, Buettner said he had never seen such enthusiasm as he had in Klamath Falls. He said, if Blue Zones is going to be successful, it will require community leaders and volunteers to be headed toward the same goals.

"You will fail if you don't have all feet walking in the same direction," he said.

To learn how Blue Zones Project is impacting Klamath Falls, as well as how to become involved, visit