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Program will 'nudge' people to act healthy

By Kristen Consillio, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 28--The Hawaii Medical Service Association is debuting a project it hopes will add at least a dozen years to your life.

The state's dominant medical insurer is partnering with Healthways to help local communities boost their well-being and live longer by making healthy choices easier for residents.

The Blue Zones Project, based on research by New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner, works with state officials to make environmental and policy changes that subtly "nudge" residents to modify behaviors that improve health outcomes. HMSA is hosting a Blue Zones summit Thursday to introduce the concept to community leaders.

The project will connect health experts with employers, schools, restaurants and grocery stores to find ways to provide better and affordable choices, such as making fresh fruit the default option at food establishments rather than french fries, reducing portions on plate lunches or adding bike paths and sidewalks to make it easier for people to forgo driving.

"Rather than trying to put the focus on changing individuals' behavior, we try to change the whole environment so the healthy choice is not only easier, but unavoidable," said Buettner, who works for Healthways.

The focus on small changes can add up to big benefits for the community, HMSA said, lowering health care costs by reducing the rates of obesity, smoking and chronic diseases.

"The way people usually look at health -- going out to exercise or on a diet -- has no long-term effect. Very few people will stay on a diet their whole life," said HMSA President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Gold. "We're not going to solve the health care cost problem unless we change the underlying health and wellness of the population."

The insurer also is working to make its work site a "Blue Zone," banning smoking, hosting a weekly farmers market and creating a rooftop garden for employees.

Gold didn't know how much the company ultimately will invest in the five-year program, but said the HMSA Foundation and other funding organizations would put money into the project if there is buy-in from the community.

The project accepts only 1 in 5 communities, or about 20 of the 115 communities that have applied to date.

Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, wrote "The Blue Zones: Lessons For Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest," which identified common elements of cultures and healthy living that produced longer life expectancy. He has worked with 17 cities and the state of Iowa.

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(c)2014 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Visit The Honolulu Star-Advertiser at www.staradvertiser.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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