For the past two days, the public has been involved in discussing well-being across sectors in the community in its first opportunity for participation with the Blue Zones Project in Pottawatomie County.

THE ISSUE: Shawnee's Avedis Foundation — after launching a partnership with Blue Zones last month — held a two-day series of focus groups this week to learn more about the community to tailor its plan of action here.

LOCAL IMPACT: Oklahoma is ranked as one of the worst states in the nation in overall wellbeing. The Blue Zones program — a wellbeing initiative to improve health outcomes — has estimated that the area could see $44 million in medical cost savings over the next 10 years through the program, as well as many other benefits.

For the past two days, the public has been involved in discussing well-being across sectors in the community in its first opportunity for participation with the Blue Zones Project in Pottawatomie County.

Avedis Foundation President Michelle Briggs said turnout for the event has been positive.

“At the first meeting Tuesday we had to add three more rows of chairs, and there were people still standing in the back,” Briggs said.

Senior Manager Erika Graves, Blue Zones Project Operations at Healthways, said the two days of attendance at the focus groups yielded close to 170.

Blue Zones Project Community Coach Jill Gray said project coordinators hosted small group discussions around community policy, individual engagement, worksites, restaurants, grocery stores, faith-based organizations and schools.

“Our goals were to gather the current state of well-being and determine how we can best work with residents and organizations to help make Pottawatomie County an even better place to live,” she said.

During a community policy focus group discussion Wednesday, Graves posed questions to the panel of Shawnee residents, trying to get a feel for what the community has to work with and where it wants to go.

Based on feedback she compiled a list of the city's strengths, challenges and opportunities.

Avedis was mentioned repeatedly in regard to recent healthy lifestyle-related projects like the sidewalks/trails plan and airport track lights — notably having had a substantial impact in the county.

Resident Phyllis Bolt said Community Renewal (another Avedis project) has been laying some great groundwork for what the Blue Zones initiative is striving to accomplish.

The city is not without its challenges.

Mayor Richard Finley minced no words as he described the city's struggle with too many good ideas being stuck on its financial back burner.

Also, transportation issues arose on more than one occasion.

Opportunities abound though for the not-too-large-but-not-too-small city of Shawnee, which boasts lakes, universities and plans set to encourage bicycling.

Getting the ball rolling

In January, Avedis Foundation, Blue Zones, LLC and Healthways, Inc., announced the launch of the Blue Zones Project in Pottawatomie County — after a preliminary visit in October.

Shawnee is Oklahoma's inaugural site for the program, which is a growing nationwide well-being improvement initiative designed to make healthy choices easier through changes to environment, policy and social networks.

So far, Blue Zones has established itself in 39 communities across nine states — projecting an impact in the lives of more than 2 million residents in those areas.

Briggs said, “It is obvious that Pottawatomie County is ready to take the next step in improving the quality of life throughout our communities and we believe the (Blue Zones) project is the right approach to achieve that level of transformation.”

How Blue Zones began

In an effort to discover how to live longer, healthier lives, in 2004 a team went in search of those who could best provide the answer –– people breaking the 100-year mark with no signs of slowing down.

“What began as a National Geographic expedition to find the longest living cultures evolved into a recipe for living longer that we’re taking across the country,” Blue Zones author Dan Buettner states on the website, bluezones.com.

The journey revealed a handful of hotspots where many age-defiers thrive: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, Calif.; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.

Blue Zones speaker Ben Leedle said what the group found was a number of similarities in the way of life for the centenarians.

According to the Danish Twins Study, 80 percent of a person's lifespan is determined by lifestyle choices and environmental factors –– only 20 percent is genetic.

Among the main contributors to a longer, healthier life included having a primarily plant-based (fruits and veggies) diet, a committed social network, regular physical activity, a system of faith and a purpose to fulfill, Leedle said.

The group is now entering specific sites to seed the environment with the host of longevity-based components to boost potential for increased wellbeing.

The group has seen much promise in areas where they have replicated the formula.

Since 2009, the community in Albert Lea, Minn. –– the group's flagship endeavor –– has shed 12,000 pounds, slashed healthcare costs, and added over three years to their average life expectancy, according to the Blue Zones website.

Why here?

Right now, Oklahoma ranks 48th in overall wellbeing.

Blue Zones believes it can help.

In October, Avedis organized an informational seminar where Speaker Ben Leedle introduced the Blue Zones concept to local attendees.

According to data gathered about Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain and Pottawatomie Counties –– a population of 412,645 –– Leedle offered a diagnostic of the area:

• one in two: Do not exercise

• one in three: Experience physical pain

• one in three: Worry about money

• one in four: Health is not near perfect

• one in six: Have exercise restrictions

• one in seven: Challenged to afford food, health care and/or medicines

• one in eight: Challenged with hope and purpose

Year after year, the state ranks 46 to 48 in the nation in overall health outcomes and of the 77 counties, Pottawatomie County ranks 37th (per the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps).

Blue Zones researchers broke it down further –– singling out Pottawatomie County alone. The data results were dismal.

Leedle said the county is driving up the risks for higher costs to address these health issues.

Pottawatomie County rates 45.3 percent in Body Mass Index (BMI), whereas the four counties together show 35.9 percent.

In tobacco use, the county shows 36.7 percent while the four combined counties register at 22.8 percent.

Stress is rated 43.9 percent for Pottawatomie County and the four together show 39.5 percent. Also, high blood pressure is 4.1 percent higher –– at 37.8 percent ––than the group of counties.

“There is an exacerbation here,” Leedle said.

Smoking and obesity are key areas of concern for the area, Leedle said.

“If Blue Zones came here, “ he said, “over 10 years the area could see $44 million in savings in medical costs alone.”

Leedle said if Shawnee participates in the Blue Zones project, the city can expect a laundry list of positive results:

• a measurable increase in wellbeing

• lower health care costs

• improved productivity

• alignment for grants, gifts and funding

• less tobacco usage

• more active population

• drop in obesity rates

• boost in economic vitality

For more information, visit bluezonesproject.com.

You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.