The particular design of that life radius, Buettner says, plays a major role in shaping your everyday habits, helping determine whether you’re likely to lead a long life (of course, alongside factors like your genetics, socioeconomic status, and personal interests). “While we had learned that people in Blue Zones regions were doing things like walking to their destinations whenever they’d leave the house, eating lots of plants, and surrounding themselves with networks of friends, the overarching thing we were searching for is, ‘What was keeping them doing these things long enough to avoid a chronic disease like cancer or diabetes?’” says Buettner.
“The people who live the longest tend to live within environments where the healthy choice is the easy or even unavoidable choice.” —Dan Buettner, Blue Zones founder
The answer, he hypothesizes, lies mostly in the built environment and municipal policies of the areas where people spend most of their time, aka their life radiuses. “The people who live the longest tend to live within environments where the healthy choice is the easy or even unavoidable choice,” Buettner says. So while theoretically, anyone could try eating a plant-forward diet or working out in a gym, these activities often require money and significant effort on the part of the individual (consider the willpower it takes to stick to a new routine). But when your life radius is filled with walking paths and easy access to fruits and vegetables, for example, the barrier to entry for a healthy lifestyle drops, and longevity-promoting decisions become the default.
These positive environmental conditions have a lot of overlap with the social determinants of health, which are conditions of the places where you live, work, eat, and play. These environmental variables—including access to affordable food, health care, and housing, along with work—factor into longevity because they directly impact access to health- and wellness-boosting components of life. Inequitable access to social determinants of health that disproportionately affect populations that are Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) widens health disparities, including longevity.
To help improve the life radius—and, by proxy, a number of social determinants of health—in U.S. cities with lower-than-average life expectancies (like Fort Worth, Texas and Alberta Lea, Minnesota), Blue Zones Project Communities, an ongoing experiment with several policy and infrastructure changes to ascertain which changes bring the biggest benefit. Below, Buettner explains the life-radius adjustments noted in these cities thus far that have proved most successful for boosting longevity.
3 key components of a healthy life radius and how they contribute to longevity:
1. Transportation infrastructure that favors walking
When the streets in your neighborhood have bike lanes and wide sidewalks, you’ll simply be more apt to use those features than if the only way to get around is by driving. Those who get around by foot or bike, in turn, are taking active steps to boost their overall health and longevity.
With this in mind, transportation infrastructure requiring all new streets to have narrower lanes for driving to make more space for pedestrians can be an effective adjustment. Across the beach cities in California that were part of the Blue Zones Project, Buettner says 220 new miles of bike paths were installed alongside safe routes for kids to walk to school, contributing to significant health improvements, including a 68 percent drop in childhood obesity rates at Redondo Beach K-5 schools between 2007 and 2019.
2. Food policies and programs that inspire healthy eating
Buettner points out that sugar-sweetened beverages are a leading source of refined sugar in Americans’ diets, which is why a couple of key food-related components of the Blue Zones Project are linked to policies around those beverages—namely, placing a moratorium on the number of billboards that are allowed to advertise them and even instituting taxes on soft drinks, as Philadelphia and Oakland, California, both have.
Another major change: Adding more accessible ways for people to eat whole plants on the regular. In Albert Lea, Minnesota, for example, the Blue Zones Project expanded community gardening space by 150 percent, which, alongside changes implemented at local grocery stores, contributed to an overall increase in lifespan for area residents by nearly three years.
3. Restrictions surrounding tobacco usage
It’s no secret that smoking tobacco can definitively compromise longevity, but Buettner and his team also found that the policies surrounding its sale and allowed usage have a strong effect on how many people within a particular life radius smoke it, and how often they do so. In Albert Lea, for example, new policies restricting the use of tobacco at 507 units of public housing, 11 of the top 20 worksites, and a variety of outdoor parks, fairs, and sporting events led to a decline in smokers from 23 percent of adult residents in 2009 to 14.7 percent in 2016.
While not every city will be a Blue Zones Project, and thus not subject to the funding and expert guidance that can improve your life radius, there are still ways you can take your longevity into your own hands. For example, you can adopt a version of the Mediterranean diet that works for you, cultivate healthy sleep hygiene, garden, and walk a little bit every day—no matter where you live.
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