Spencer has become Iowa's first certified Blue Zones community, and with that announcement came some eye-opening, measurable improvements in residents' overall health and wellness in the past year and a half. The city's hospital, for instance, reported significant decreases in health insurance claims as many residents reduced their risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, officials said.

Representatives from Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield joined members of the Iowa Blue Zones initiative, the Spencer Blue Zones Project Team and representatives of the business community in Spencer for an announcement that was 18 months in the making, The Daily Reporter reported. 

"We're impressed with what you've already achieved," Scott Froyen, a Wellmark sales vice president, told a large crowd packing the showroom floor at Bogenrief Studios. "... We believe this will add years to your life and life to your years." 

 

One of Spencer's most notable achievements: City workers' health care claims declined by more than 20 percent, and nearly half of city employees eliminated at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, such as high blood pressure, high triglycerides and high glucose.

 

The Iowa Hospital Association reported on its blog that paid insurance claims at Spencer Hospital increased by only 1.4 percent between 2011 and 2012, compared with the national trend of 7 percent and the hospital's average of 15 percent over the previous five years.

Additionally, the hospital reported that its most recent wellness screening revealed that more than half of those screened eliminated one or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes compared with the previous year.  Only 6 percent experienced an increase.

Spencer was one of the four initial demonstration cities announced for the statewide initiative a year and a half ago, the others being Cedar Falls, Mason City and Waterloo. Six additional cities - Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, Iowa City, Oskaloosa, Marion and Sioux City - were added as demonstration sites in January. Part of Iowa's Healthiest State initiative, the Blue Zones program is based on the research of Dan Buettner, author of "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest," 

 

To become the first certified Blue Zones community, Spencer had to reach participation milestones that included involvement by at least 50 percent of the city's 20 largest employers, as well as participation by at least 25 percent of the community's schools, restaurants and grocery stores.

 

Other wellness improvements made by Spencer as a result of the initiative:

  • Community walkability was improved by appropriating $200,000 to new sidewalk construction, leading to 200 citizen applications for new sidewalks, and implementing a policy requiring sidewalks for future construction.
  • Spencer elementary schools claim a 10 percent increase in the number of students walking or biking to school in the 2012-13 school year from the previous school year.
  • The number of community gardens increased from one location with seven plots to three locations with 36 plots.
  • Some 250 walking groups around the city have logged more than 136,000 walking minutes since the project's inception.