WLAA Profile: WOW hopes to make Washtenaw County a Healthy Blue Zone

Washtenaw Optimal Wellness (WOW) is an energetic group of medical professionals, business people, educators, and other professionals dedicated to promoting health and well-being for all in the area.

WOW is currently gaining momentum and support to make Washtenaw County a “Blue Zone” community—meaning citizens are making choices to put their health and well-being at the forefront with the hopes of living a healthier and longer life together.

“There are approximately 20 active members on the Executive Committee and we meet monthly as a group,” according to Dr. Melissa Sundermann, who is a leader in the organization. “WOW was started by Jeff Tritten, Gaia Kile and Dr. Bob Breakey who all had a vision of making Washtenaw County the next Blue Zone community. We are rapidly growing and currently expanding our involvement throughout Washtenaw County.”

A Blue Zone community “has populations with greater well-being, improved health outcomes, reduced costs, and increased civic pride, all of which provide healthy economic development,” according to the Blue Zone Project.

Sundermann became involved in WOW about 10 months ago. Her background and experience is a natural fit with WOW and its connection to the Blue Zone goal for Washtenaw County.

“I am a physician, duly-board certified in Internal Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine,” she described. “My practice philosophy is to optimize health and longevity utilizing self-care principles based upon the pillars of Lifestyle Medicine. Lifestyle Medicine is the use of a whole food, plant-predominant dietary lifestyle, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, and positive social connection as a primary therapeutic modality for treatment and reversal of chronic disease.”

In order for Washtenaw County — which includes Ann Arbor, Saline, and Ypsilanti — to become a Blue Zone, WOW must gather support from different sectors including local government agencies, health care establishments, school systems, restaurants, faith-based communities, and businesses.

“The Five Original Blue Zones closely align with the principal of Lifestyle Medicine and therefore it was a natural fit for me to become involved in advocating for bringing a Blue Zone to the community where I live, work, and recreate,” Sundermann described.

The Original Blue Zones are Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. These were areas that were identified where people live much longer than average.

Sundermann explained that becoming a Blue Zone specifically means focusing on the following goals:

  • Create a greater sense of community in the region.
  • Educate citizens and food service providers (grocers, restaurants, cafeterias, lunch programs, food banks) on healthier eating choices while making those choices more convenient and affordable.
  • Create walking programs to promote the benefits of moderate exercise.
  • Create purpose workshops.
  • Bridge some of the socioeconomic divide in Washtenaw County. “In order to achieve health and longevity for all citizens in the country, we also have to work toward bridging the economic divide that exists in the region while being mutually inclusive in our community activities,” said Sundermann.

In order to become a Blue Zone, Sundermann detailed, “WOW will need to have evidence that we as a group have engaged our communities through outreach events, presentations, and other public events.”

WOW has also established a social media presence and is active on its website, Facebook, and Twitter. They are also building their email newsletter base to keep the community informed about progress and goals.

A “Well-Being Index” is one method to quantify and calculate a community’s health. The “Well Being Index” evaluates five different sectors ranging from 0 to 100. It includes the following, according to Sundermann:

• Career: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.
• Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life.
• Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
• Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community.
• Physical: having good health and energy to get things done.

Sundermann stated that the Well-Being Index of Ann Arbor for 2017-2018 was 64.2, which put Ann Arbor in the ranking as 5th in the nation. This score was not for the entire Washtenaw County.

There are nine pillars that Sundermann described to being important to being a Blue Zone that each person can implement into their lifestyle change.

1.) Move naturally: “De-convenience your home, take the stairs, park farther away from the entrance, and grow a garden,” she described. “Have an errand not far away? Walk! Walking is one of the best activities for longevity.”
2.) Know your purpose: “Know why you wake up each day!” She described. “This alone can add seven years to your life. Be able to articulate your values, passions, gifts, and talents.”
3.) Down shift: “Stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease,” she reported. “Find your de-stressor: meditate, nap, pray, or enjoy happy hour with friends.”
4.) The 80 percent rule: “Cut 20 percent of your calories with evidence based practices: eat a big breakfast, eat with your family, use 10 inch plates, and stop when you feel 80 percent full.”
5.) Plant slant: “Eat a primarily plant-based diet that’s heavy on beans, nuts, and green plants,” she described.
6.) Wine at 5: “Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers,” said Sundermann. “ The trick is to drink one or maybe two drinks per day and not a drop more. This is also a wind down time with friends.”
7.) Family first: “Living in a loving and thriving family can add six years to your ticker! Invest time in your kids, nurture a monogamous relationship and keep aging parents near by,” recommended Sundermann.
8.) Belong: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or some other religion that meets as a community,” she detailed. “Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.”
9.) Right tribe: “Take stock in who your friends are and extend your social circle to include healthy-minded, supportive people.”

WOW is partnering with the Michigan Theater to launch a nine month film series beginning May 24. The films will occur on the forth Sunday at 3 p.m. of every month and will showcase a film that closely relates to one of the nine Blue Zones Pillars. After each film showing, there will be a short presentation about the specific Pillar and time for Q&A. WOW will also have tables in the lobby to learn more about WOW and their initiatives. Some examples of the films being shown are “The Game Changers,” “The Mindfulness Movement,” “Wild,” “The Lunch Box,” and “Happy”.

To date, there are about 50 communities across the country who have implemented the Blue Zone Project.

The following are all important results:

Double digit drops in obesity, smoking, and BMI (body mass index).

Millions of dollars of savings in healthcare costs. For instance, in Alber Lea, MN healthcare claims dropped by 49%.

Measurable drops in employee absenteeism.

Increased longevity of citizens by years.

Dramatic decrease in workers’ compensation claims.

Developed a more bike-friendly community.

Greater community involvement and volunteerism.

“One Blue Zone Project saw a 17-percent decrease in smoking and 9-percent increase in exercise,” said Sundermann.

“At the present time, we are hoping to spread awareness of WOW and our mission,” said Sundermann. “The general public can best support us by attending events such as the Michigan Theater film series and the Mayor’s Green Fair. They can also learn more about the organization through our website and social media platforms. We are also looking for financial support to bring in the Blue Zone Team for implementation of the project and strategies. WOW is now able to accept charitable contributions through our website. If groups are interested in learning more, please contact us via our website and we would be able to do a short presentation in person or remote.”