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Town of Yountville earns Blue Zones workplace designation

Town of Yountville staff are on a mission to improve their health and well-being, and that of community members as well. On Monday, the town reached a major milestone, becoming...

Members of the Yountville Town Council, town staff and residents pose for a group shot following a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning celebrating the Town of Yountville’s designation as a Blue Zones-approved Worksite. Photo by Marissa Carlisle.

Town of Yountville staff are on a mission to improve their health and well-being, and that of community members as well.

On Monday, the town reached a major milestone, becoming an official Blue Zones Project-approved worksite. To mark the achievement, staff and Town Council members held a ribbon-cutting ceremony outside Town Hall.

“Huge congratulations go to the incredible team and community for embarking on this wellness journey with us,” interim Town Clerk Hilary Gaede said. “When our entire team participates, from workshops and schools to restaurants and grocery stores, the small changes add up to huge benefits for all of us.”

The Blue Zones Project is a health and wellness movement that originated in 2004 when Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow, in collaboration with a group of researchers and demographers, analyzed and then documented five regions of the world where people lived healthier and longer lives. Those regions were Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California.

As Buettner’s team worked, they used a blue marker to circle the regions on a map, which led to the name, Blue Zones. A limited liability corporation was formed and working in partnership with AARP and the United Health Foundation, the project was launched in 2009 in Albert Lea, Minnesota, using nine lifestyle habits – the Power 9 – that the original Blue Zones communities shared.

After just one year, participants in Albert Lea had added nearly 2.9 years to their average lifespan, according to Blue Zones, as well as increasing economic vitality, savings in medical costs and productivity loss, and improved health outcomes. Freeborn County moved up 34 places in the Minnesota County Health rankings, prompting Harvard’s Walter Willett, writing for Newsweek, to call the results “stunning.”

Since that time, “The Blue Zones Project has expanded to more than 75 communities across North America,” Newton said. “It has produced double-digit drops in obesity, smoking, and body mass index, among other health and well-being improvements,” Karla Newton, director of operations for the Blue Zone Project, said.

The idea for the town of Yountville to partner with Blue Zones on becoming an approved worksite was put forth by Gaede and management fellow Beatriz Becerra a year ago, following a meeting in which then-Town Manager Steve Rogers urged staff to “think outside the box” when considering new projects and initiatives.

“Steve was very supportive and said it was a good fit for Yountville,” Gaede said. “Brad Raulston, our current town manager, has been supportive, too.”

The process required buy-in from town staff, which was a key part of meeting Blue Zones’ requirements for an approved worksite. A wellness committee made up of a member from each department met regularly to discuss initiatives and learn about Blue Zones practices, including the nine characteristics that all Blue Zone regions share.

The first three habits are to move naturally, know your purpose in life, and downshift, which means to take time to meditate, pray, shed stress, and relax.

The fourth habit is to stop eating when you are 80 percent full. The fifth is eating a plant-based diet, and the sixth is having wine with friends.

“It is the connection with friends that is beneficial, not drinking wine alone,” Blue Zones’ Newton said.

The last three Power 9 habits are belonging to a tribe – having a social circle, belonging to a faith-based group, and putting loved ones first.

For the worksite validation process, Gaede said actions were broken into categories like “physical environment,” “leadership,” “social networks” and “people.”

Eighty percent of Yountville town employees took one or more of the actions necessary to complete the process successfully.

“Essentially, we needed to score points in those categories to qualify for the designation,” she said. “So, physical environment, for example – 50 percent of employees participated in an ergonomic assessment.”

Many staffers took the Blue Zones RealAge test – an online assessment of each individual’s current health and lifestyle that calculates the person’s “real” age.

“We’ll take that test again next year to monitor our growth,” Gaede said.

To meet the “downshift” habit, members of the Public Works and Parks departments turned a weed patch behind Town Hall into an outdoor patio where staff members can take breaks and get fresh air.

Employees, along with other members of the community, have participated in Blue Zones sessions that include plant-based cooking class demonstrations and Purpose Workshops designed to help people discover or rediscover their personal gifts, values, and passions.

“The benefits of these things include lowered healthcare costs, improved productivity, and ultimately a higher quality of life,” said Gaede. “We’re proud to have played our part in this initiative and we can’t wait to see the positive changes it brings.”

Through a three-year Blue Zones pilot in the upper Napa Valley, sponsored by Adventist Health, many organizations and groups have become Blue Zones approved. In Yountville, they include Handwritten Wines, Jessup Cellars, and the Chamber of Commerce.

Other approved worksites in the upper Napa Valley are Adventist Health St. Helena Hospital, C. Mondavi & Family, Far Niente Winery, Nickel & Nickel Winery, and Silver Oak Winery.

Though the Blue Zones Project partners with worksites and organizations, Newton said that individual residents can also benefit by taking the RealAge test, participating in classes and workshops, and following the nine habits that make Blue Zones of the world the healthiest places to live.

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