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Living like the world’s longest-lived people

Nick Buettner, The Bluezones™

Nick Buettner, Blue Zones

Hear from Nick Buettner about the common lifestyle and cultural traits of a bluezone location and how they relate to workplaces.

Run time: 11 minutes 45 seconds.

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 5 MB)

Anthony (00:05):

Hello and welcome to this MSD podcast. My guest today is Nick Buettner. Nick is the Vice President of Blue Zones. Nick, welcome.

Nick Buettner (00:16):

Hey, thanks for having me today.

Anthony (00:17):

Your focus at Blue Zones is on community engagement, and we'll get more of that from you in just a moment. But I thought we'd just explore what Blue Zones is, for those who may not be aware.

Nick Buettner (00:30):

Blue zones are hotspots around the world where people are living the longest life. If you look at the research, 80% of how long you live is determined by lifestyle factors and our habits, only 20% is genetics and healthcare. If that's true, what my brother Dan and I did for about 15 years, is we traveled the world to try to find the pockets in the world where people are living the longest life. We did it with demographers, epidemiology, and experts from School of Public Health, to really understand not only are they living this long life, but what did they all have in common?

Anthony (01:09):

Why did you get involved with the blue zone research? What prompted you?

Nick Buettner (01:14):

Partially because I'm from Minnesota and it gets really cold there in the winter, and this was my excuse to go somewhere warm. No, seriously, I have spent the years before the first blue zone back in 1999, trying to solve mysteries that nobody knew the answer to, is engaging an online audience of people to try to solve mysteries. Like why did the ancient Mayan civilization collapse, or did Marco Polo really do the Silk Route?

Nick Buettner (01:46):

Through that work, we were able to engage that audience to be able to solve the mystery. I think the secret of longevity is a really important mystery that we're all trying to figure out are, what are those traits that lead to us having that long, healthy life? Not just quantity, but also quality of life. What we focused on was the first one in Okinawa, to really see if we could reverse-engineer a recipe for longevity by meeting up with people that were successful.

Nick Buettner (02:19):

If you look at the blue zones, if you look at the hotspots around the world, what was really interesting to me is I never met somebody at age 50 who said, "I want to go on a diet." I never met somebody at age 50 said, "I want to start exercising so I can live a long life." Longevity was never something that they pursued, rather it ensued because of their environment. So when you look at organizations, if you look at wellbeing inside of our work sites, what you want to focus in on is how do you set up an environment where that healthy choice is not only the easy choice, but ideally the default choice?

Anthony (03:01):

What would you say are some of the common workplace barriers?

Nick Buettner (03:05):

A few things. I think number one is leadership, having the right leadership that is supporting a culture of wellbeing. I think the second thing that you need is to put the right resources into it, both financial and human resources. I think you need the right plan. You need to understand, what does success look like? What are you trying to achieve? And really small, smart measurements to be able to make sure that you're on a track to impact it. The last thing you need is an engaged workforce, engaged individuals that want to define the culture of that organization and set it up in a way that, again, just makes that healthy choice the default choice.

Anthony (03:53):

Nick, this is where your role in community engagement comes into play?

Nick Buettner (03:59):

We go a lot broader than just work sites. We do community initiatives. In 62 communities across the United States and Canada, we're bringing a model that focuses in on the environment, and focusing in on working with policy leaders in a community, to better design their community for walkability and bikeability. To look at food policy that makes healthy food more accessible and affordable for everyone, no matter what your socio-economic status. To look at things that bring addiction like tobacco and alcohol, and do policies that make it harder, less accessible.

Nick Buettner (04:39):

Then we work with places where you spend most of your time in the community, in your work sites, in our restaurants. What's on your menu in a restaurant? In our grocery stores. What's the last thing you see in a grocery store? Is it a healthy choice? We look at schools, where kids are spending 900 hours a year, and then also at individuals, how do we help those individuals look at their homes, break down isolation so that there's more supportive networks around healthy behaviors, but then to help people find purpose. Purpose, to be able to understand your skills, understand your motivations. Then be able to create opportunities where every day you're waking up, living out your purpose.

Nick Buettner (05:25):

I've been working for the last nine years in 62 communities across the country, leading this with some amazing results. But we also focus on large organizations because these organizations, I believe, interact in the same way that a community does.

Anthony (05:41):

If a company could only implement, let's say, two or three initiatives, which ones would be the most important?

Nick Buettner (05:51):

The hard part with that question, Anthony, is I don't think there's any recipe for wellbeing. It is what's really important is to really think through, to assess the needs of the organization... which they're different for everyone... and to be able to then put together a plan, a plan that's based in evidence. It's evidence-informed, but it's also measurable. Now, some of the things that might be in that plan, in the framework that Blue Zones has developed, is things that look at purpose, and aligning the purpose of the individual to the purpose of the organization, and vice-versa.

Nick Buettner (06:26):

So that not only is the organization, their purpose is aligned to that individual, and if that individuals is aligned to the organization, then the person feels like they're part of something bigger than just themselves. On social, how do you create better social relationships? According to Gallup, number one thing indicates whether or not you want to go to work is whether or not you have a good friend. And then your environment. What's your cafeteria? What's the design of your cafeteria, and the policies that support wellbeing and happiness, and what are those benefits that give support, whether it be in mental health or these other policies that align?

Nick Buettner (07:09):

Those are four or five categories that we look at, it's about 40% of our framework. But again, I recommend doing an assessment so that you understand what is it that you want to impact, put a plan in place with your employees to change that, but more importantly, understand what success is, and measure it along the way so you make sure that it's aligned, and that alignment, if it can be aligned to the organizational needs and organizational outcomes, also drive sustainability. So that it keeps on going year in and year out, and it's not just the project du jour.

Anthony (07:46):

Nick, you talked about the assessment process. What's involved in that?

Nick Buettner (07:53):

For us, it's robust, there is an online assessment that we'll do where you get baseline measurement of the individuals in five domains. We partnered Gallup in order to do that, looks at what's the individual's sense of purpose? There's questions around their social health, their physical health. There's questions around how their community impacts their health. Also financial health. It's not how much money you make, but how securely you do that.

Nick Buettner (08:25):

That's that secondary data, but then there's primary conversations that you want to have with your leadership. There's primary conversations that you want to have with focus groups at different areas inside of that organization, if it can be done by a third party, so people feel that they can be honest. Then again, think about not just programs and fun runs, but then think about the solution being, how do I change the environment where it's just a default, where it just happens automatically?

Anthony (08:57):

In terms of then moving forward, let's say following this assessment, how then does an organization implement that change? I guess too, is there a timeframe that needs to be adhered to, or can one do it-

Nick Buettner (09:11):


Anthony (09:11):

... gradually, depending on the organization?

Nick Buettner (09:15):

Yeah. I'm giving you just really a lot of the cliff notes. There's a really robust science around this, and I don't mean to be cagey. It's just, it's what we do. These processes that we do with Blue Zones takes about three and a half years. What we try to focus on is doing certifying campuses, certifying those organizations. How we define certification is around outcomes. So to put together a strategic plan to engage the employees, but then make sure that that plan is rooted in evidence, but then is measurable.

Nick Buettner (09:55):

What we want to do is try to reduce the risk factors that lead to premature disease, number one. Could be tied to stress, it could be tied to cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure. But then we also want to look at what are those organizational metrics that we're trying to do? Because if you look at work site wellbeing, in America, we also look at from claims costs, and healthy employees cost less, but there's also a productivity. There's absenteeism that's reduced. There's better collaboration. There's less turnover inside of your organization.

Nick Buettner (10:38):

If you can think through, what are you trying? What are those organizational goals that you're trying to do? And align some of those solutions to wellbeing, because they are intricately related, and put together a plan that is rooted in measurement so that you can come back, year in and year out, and say, "Well, here's our strategy. Is it working?" If it's not, you can adapt, and you move it. It's about three and a half years to four years, is probably the life cycle, what we do.

Nick Buettner (11:05):

We've learned that if you do anything less than that, we're not going to get to sustainability, so that work continues. Because what we're trying to do is set up wellbeing in communities. That is a generational problem, right? If we're looking at this as a six-month project, you're not going to move the needle. These are 10-year projects, and we're just trying, with Blue Zones, to hit a tipping point that can then be redefined year in and year out.

Anthony (11:35):

Nick, it's been enlightening indeed. I really do thank you for your time today, and also for being part of the symposium this year. Thank you so much.

Nick Buettner (11:44):

Thank you. I'm looking forward to it.