Bestselling author and explorer Dan Buettner has traveled the globe studying the habits of the happiest and healthiest people.
These regions are known as Blue Zones — areas where people are 10 times more likely to reach the age of 100 than people in the United States. Buettner, his colleagues from National Geographic and other longevity researchers have identified Blue Zones in Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, Calif.; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.
Now Buettner is helping a company in Loring Park apply Blue Zone principles to their workplace to foster a healthier and happier culture.
Salo, a fast-growing staffing agency, is working on becoming the first Blue Zones certified workplace in the country. It has a goal of adding 1,000 years to the “active” life expectancy of its employees by the end of the six-month certification process. “Active” years refer to ones people enjoy without being burdened with chronic diseases.
The company has 207 employees participating in the Blue Zone project, said Gwen Martin, co-founder and managing partner of NumberWorks, a Salo brand.
Martin said the company is tracking how the investment in the project will impact the company’s bottom line by looking at the impact on health care claims, revenue, profitability. They are also measuring how the initiative is helping boost Salo’s influence on social media platforms.
“[Salo employees] are nudged into constant movement and more socialization,” said Buettner, who has an office in the North Loop neighborhood. “They are involved in committed social networks. The quality of relationships transcends just work and expands into a more meaningful realm so you know your co-worker not just as a co-worker but as a human.”
As part of the Blue Zone program, Salo now has 21 active moais — a common practice in Okinawa where people have a small group of companions they can rely on for support and inspiration. It’s based on the idea that your peers have a tremendous impact on your lifestyle habits, so if you’re surrounded by healthy people you’re more likely to make better choices.
When Salo first launched the Blue Zone program Sept. 20, employees took online assessments to determine their life expectancy and happiness levels. The average life expectancy was 88, but the healthy life expectancy was only 72 — meaning most Salo employees would likely face diseases that would limit their quality of life if they didn’t change their habits.
At the beginning of the program, 90 percent of the Salo employees were not eating the daily recommended amount of vegetables, 87 percent were eating fast food at least once a week, nearly 40 percent were sedentary and nearly half of the participants slept less than seven hours per night. The overall happiness grade for the group was a B.
Employees have the option of using treadmill desks at work and some have desks with adjustable heights that allow them to sit or stand. There’s a meditation room for relaxation, and they have had a cooking lesson offering tips on making flavorful, plant-based meals. Soon, Salo employees will go through a “purpose” workshop designed to help them connect to their passions outside of work.
Salo co-founder John Folkestad said he’s made fewer stops at fastfood since starting the Blue Zone project.
“Most people have made subtle changes,” he said, adding the company is focused on helping people make long-term lifestyle changes. “We’re not giving out baskets of kale. We’re not looking to be draconian. … We’re doing this to create a structure so we can all be healthy.”
Amy Langer, also a Salo co-founder, said sweets are still allowed at company parties.
“It doesn’t feel right to take the cake away, but we have other options. We also have bowls of fruit,” she said.
Buettner said Salo employees are starting to see results from their lifestyle changes.
“We’re already seeing well being and life expectancy increase with the employees there,” he said. “There’s a culture and developing reputation at Salo as a place that puts the wellbeing of its employees and partners in front of just profits. That’s a reputation that will transcend our time with them.”
The next company lined up go through the Blue Zone certification process is Google in Mountain View, Calif. KARE 11 has also expressed interest in going through the certification process, Buettner said.
Salo executives and Buettner declined to say how much the certification process costs.
“It’s an investment in employees and the reputation of the culture,” Buettner said. “It pays off we believe in higher worker engagement, lower healthcare costs, higher productivity and lower absenteeism.”
Buettner has also applied the Blue Zone principles to cities, including Albert Lea, Minn. Since launching the pilot project in 2009, the city has added more walking, jogging and bike paths; increased rates of volunteerism; improved nutrition in the schools; and expanded tobacco-free worksites and housing facilities, among other things.
Buettner called Salo an “early adopter” among companies committed to health and wellness.
“They have set the bar for other companies to aspire to,” he said.
— For more information on Salo, go to salollc.com.
— To learn more about Dan Buettner and Blue Zones, go to bluezones.com.
The Blue Zone Power 9
(Common habits of people living in Blue Zones around the world)
— They move naturally.
— They have a sense of purpose.
— They take time to down shift/relax.
— The eat until they feel about 80 percent full.
— They eat a plant-based diet.
— They drink a moderate amount of alcohol (typically red wine).
— They have a sense of belonging and connection to a faith-based community.
— They put their loved ones first.
— They have social circles with people that have healthy habits.