Blue Zones: Hundreds of people help launch effort aimed at making healthier activities easier in Lewis County


The healthy habits of the longest-lived people in the world were on display Saturday as hundreds of people attended the kickoff of a new community initiative called Blue Zones Activate Lewis County

With research and vibrant anecdotes from centenarians in places like Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, the local Blue Zones effort is described as finding and encouraging ways that the people of Lewis County could add healthy years to their lives, cut health care costs and increase life satisfaction. 

Gaelon Spradley, CEO of Valley View Health Center, said the project helps connect people, projects and the communities geographically dispersed across far-flung Lewis County. 

“When you make those connections, the healthier communities just result and that’s what’s really exciting,” Spradley said. 

Live Longer, Feel Better

Nick Buettner, who co-founded Minnesota-based Blue Zones 20 years ago with his brother, National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner, described ways that he said 90 communities across the country have seen better health outcomes through changes that encourage what he calls the “power nine” ways to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

“These are things when integrating into your life can help you live longer, feel better, and even be happier,” Buettner said. 

He described long-lived people they found in “Blue Zones” across the world who grow their own food, move naturally as they walk through their communities, and sustain rich relationships that give meaning and purpose to each day. Elders, he said, are seen as repositories of wisdom for the next generation and are actively involved in helping raise their great- or great-great-grandchildren. That creates the so-called “grandmother effect,” where kids have been shown to be healthier and have a lower rate of mortality when a grandparent lives in their home. 

“So you create kind of this virtual circle where the parents are supporting the well-being of their elderly parent and just by their presence, the next generation is healthier,” Buettner said. 

Walking Together

Buetter’s keynote address anchored an afternoon that saw hundreds of people visiting stations that detailed blue zone principles, such as plant-based diets, finding and living out your purpose each day, and incorporating physical activity into your daily routine. Groups such as Lewis County Community Trails, Arbor Health, Veterans Journey Forward, and United Way invited a stream of attendees the chance to connect more deeply with activities and resources. 

One station included a sign-up sheet to form walking groups of 5-8 people in each Lewis County town. 

The goal is not only to create a rewarding way to get moving, but is to reduce loneliness, which Buettner said has the same effect on your health as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. 

“Thirty-five years ago, the average American had three best friends,” Buettner said. “That's now down to a friend and a half. Can you tell me what’s half a friend? I think it's a couple of Twitters and an Instagram friend. I don't know. But as the research says, if you have less than three friends, you're defined as lonely... Isolation kills you.”

In contrast Okinawans in Japan have groups called a “moai,” which means “meeting for a common purpose.” 

Children are placed in moai groups when they are five years old, creating companions for life. Buettner showed a picture of a group of 102-year-olds who have been in the same moai for 97 years. 

“The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is I slide open my front door and look out to see my friends,” one of the women told Buettner. “And if they're not there, I go and check on them.”

Starting Strong

Shawna Herriford, a Centralia native and former pharmacist, is the leader of the local Blue Zones Activate effort. It began a year ago in Lewis, Mason and Grays Harbor counties with funding from CHOICE Regional Health Network

In January the local Blue Zones group, after months of community engagement, released an action plan aimed at helping Lewis County make healthy choices easier for people. The CHOICE funding lasts through April 2026. At that point the preliminary “activate” stage could be extended or it could be expanded into a full Blue Zones Project, which is a more robust effort to transform a community’s health and well-being.

Herriford said Saturday’s kickoff event fostered exactly the kind of connection between people and groups that she was hoping for. 

“I had a few moments where I could step back and take in what was transpiring around me and it brought such a smile to my face,” she said. “People were laughing together, kids playing, new acquaintances were being made and so many people were finding ways to deepen their engagement within our community.... The excitement at the event was palpable and it was echoed in every conversation that I had.”

Options and Opportunities

Meja Handlen, director of Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, spoke to the group and said she had just come from the funeral of someone who died after complications from diabetes. Handlen, pre-diabetic herself, said she has made Blue Zones-style lifestyle changes to her diet in recent months. She is also getting in 10,000 steps a day — and has lost 16 pounds. 

She said the neighborliness of her community in Pe Ell, especially during the recovery from the 2007 floods, shows how a community is strengthened through the power of friendships and connections. 

“I can change myself today, but inspire someone else tomorrow,” Handlen said. “That's what Blue Zones mean to me: Giving options and opportunities, not mandates or pressure... I'm very excited about this opportunity for our community to be healthier and stronger, and our kids to see that.”

Learn more about Blue Zones online at: 

Note: Brian Mittge is a Chronicle columnist who has written about Blue Zones before. He took part in Saturday’s event in a booth about the Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area (he serves as president of that nonprofit group).