Pensacola Magazine

Feeling Blue

blue zones

Could Pensacola be the next Okinawa, Japan, or Loma Linda, California? These regions of the world boast people who live measurably longer lives. It is not unusual, for example, for men and women in these locales to live to 90 or even 100 years old.

You may think there is no way Pensacola could ever attain that level of health and longevity. Well, Meghan McCarthy, director of Healthy Lives at Baptist Hospital, is working hard to make it a reality by implanting a public awareness campaign and educating people on the benefits of eating right, exercising, socialization, and maintaining a healthy emotional and spiritual attitude. She is working with community leaders to gauge public interest in a series of initiatives that would provide recommendations for wholesome living right here. In a county that routinely rates among the least healthy in the state, the initiative is long overdue. BY JOSH NEWBY

So what phase of the Blue Zones project are you in now?

Meghan: The whole point of bringing in the Blue Zones team to Pensacola was to see if people were into it. This type of thing has to be community-owned to be successful. So we had this dream to bring Blue Zones here and a thousand people attended our public awareness events over 48 hours. We sent out a follow-up survey and got back some great feedback. As a Baptist representative, I’ve even heard from Sacred Heart physicians who want to be involved.

Now, when we put something out there, it’s not going to speak to everyone. You have to tailor-make it. Promoting the economic benefits is not going to excite everybody. By making a human connection and telling them, ‘How would you like to live to see your great grandkids,’ is a lot easier than saying, ‘Lose 10 pounds.’

Naples just did this for a couple million dollars. Now people will say that Naples is a lot different than us. That’s true; every city has its challenges. But if we can do a Blue Zone in Naples and in Pensacola, we can pretty much cover the gamut of a lot of Florida cities. We can create a model of how to roll it out statewide.

Unfortunately, health is not really in our repertoire here, which is ironic, because people want to retire here. The dream is to retire here, so you would think we would value health. It really comes down to viewing health as a value, just as we view the environment as a value.

I have been firming up community support. I’ve met with the University of West Florida and with the City of Pensacola to really align what support we will need. The next steps will be Baptist firming up a plan. The traditional Blue Zones approach is to partner with the city and build up boots on the ground. I’m thinking of an alternate method that might lower the overall cost. Other cities do that, too. We’re moving forward, but we’re not committed to anything yet.

What are some tangible things that can happen?

Meghan: Part of Blue Zones’ success is in their certifications. For example, they’ll look to certify 50 restaurants as Blue Zones restaurants. Each restaurant has a list of 25 things they can do, like not offer bread unless someone asks or provide a side of fruit instead of fries. You can still get fries, but the idea is to make health the default option. Now, not that every restaurant would have to do every one. No one size fits all. This can of course be lucrative, too, as people seek out those restaurants with certifications.

Grocery stores can have Blue Zones checkouts, too, that don’t have any candy impulse buys in their aisles. A lot of stores have to designate so much square-footage to Coke, for example. We’re asking they advertise Dasani water instead of the soda. So we have all these subconscious elements that gently nudge people to make healthy choices.

How does poverty factor into all of this and what can we do about it from that angle?

Meghan: The great thing about Blue Zones is it’s for everyday lifestyles. Right now, if you walk or bike somewhere, people think you’re homeless or need help, so we need to make health cool. It really is a culture thing. When you can buy soda for half the price of water, that’s a differential that we need to combat.

However, I don’t believe socioeconomic status is a barrier to health, and there’s research to support that. We do need to have resources, but we already have many. When I look at an obese child or a hungry child, I see the same thing—a malnourished child. We can add a layer of incentives to the action we take that encourages partents to make healthy choices for their children early on. And we need to do that by connect where the family lives or goes to church. We have to collaborate. We have to create intersection points where lifestyles meet healthy choices and resources.

What is Pensacola’s greatest health downfall?

Meghan: Honestly I believe it is about culture. This can be the San Diego of the South. We have these beautiful beaches and environment and we want people to be able to move easily and have opportunities.  Let’s look at our green spaces, our parks. Can people get there by walking or do they have to drive there? I think we have a lot of momentum with the coming ferries and the YMCA. It’ll be cool to be healthy. It’ll be like a badge of honor.

You know, people judge values based on what they can see. When we have bike racks and Blue Zones, people perceive those things. It’s not overnight, but we instill that we want to be healthy and that is a part of our growth, including economic growth.

What are some of the economic advantages of being a blue zone?

Meghan: Healthier employees are more productive. They are absent and sick less. Now, it’s tough to show a direct ROI, but it is a common sense return. The number of working moms is growing, and the number one reason they call in sick is because of sick kids. We talk so much about workforce development and business recruitment; well, a healthy workforce is a part of that.

Tourism is a factor, too. Healthier options can translate to that. Maybe it’s a bike path from New Orleans to Tallahassee, or from the Gulf to somewhere north of us. Having more bike races would be a huge economic driver that can translate to business growth and overall culture change.

Another big thing is insurance. Businesses under 50 employees—even if they’re the healthiest 50 employees there are—are subject to the rates of their risk pool. That averages out here in Pensacola, especially since Florida Blue has about 60 to 70 percent of market share. Most people are using them as an insurer. If we’re all healthier, then we’re saving them money and that should lower everyone’s rates. Finally, surround yourself with health. Humans do things in groups, whether it’s work out or eat or play. So have a salad potluck for your birthday, work somewhere that allows you a standing desk. We have to make our neighborhoods safe so people feel assured they can securely gett some free running or walking exercise in. Zip codes do determine your health, but as we work together, we can boost the overall health, as a community, of all those zip codes.