In the Zone

Quinn Mendez, 7, ran in place for 30 seconds outside the Central Coast YMCA booth at the Blue Zones Project Monterey kickoff on June 29. Next, he did five jumping jacks. He was trying his best to complete a series of challenges to win a backpack.

He walked away from the booth with a big smile and a backpack covered in a bright donut print.

The physical challenges were surely Blue Zones approved, maybe not so much the donuts. Quinn and his Carmel family joined more than 1,000 people at Sherwood Hall in Salinas at the official launch of the five-year program to raise the health and happiness levels of Monterey County residents.

Salinas was chosen in January as the site of a new Blue Zones Project, one of 48 across the U.S. launched since 2009. It’s based on the work of Blue Zones, LLC founder Dan Buettner, a journalist who studied regions of the planet where people live long, healthy lives. Wondering if a Blue Zone could be created, he first worked in Minnesota, where adding more sidewalks raised residents’ activity level by 20 percent.

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Rather than expecting people to do it all when it comes to diet and exercise, the point is to create a web of support through public policy and community groups working together to optimize the surrounding environment. It includes creating opportunities for social interaction to counter loneliness, which Buettner said shortens life expectancy as much as smoking.

“For the next five years we’re here to make Salinas a much more walkable, bikeable place,” Buettner said. In the coming months, residents will be invited to moais, a Japanese term to describe social networks in Okinawa, one of the Earth’s Blue Zones.

The cost of the initiative is paid for through private foundations and companies – not tax dollars­ – in this case Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, Montage Health and Taylor Farms. A spokesperson says the investment is $12.3 million over the five years. That money covers a local staff of seven, community outreach, support positions in the national office, research and more.

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