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Eight Florida Communities First to Achieve Blue Zones Community Certification in Southeast US

Blue Zones and Sharecare announced that the Southwest Florida communities of Naples, Immokalee, Ave Maria, Bonita Springs, Estero, Golden Gate, East Naples, and Marco Island each have achieved Blue Zones Community certification, marking the first places to earn the designation in Florida as well as the Southeast U.S.

The certification recognizes the measurable success of Southwest Florida’s well-being transformation through the implementation of Blue Zones Project, a pioneering population health initiative that brings evidence-based best practices in built environment, policy, and social connection to participating communities.

Brought to Southwest Florida by NCH Healthcare System in 2015, the well-being improvement initiative has engaged local leaders, volunteers, and organizations to help residents move naturally, eat better, develop healthy social circles, and live with purpose in their communities. Each of the newly certified communities earned the designation by meeting and exceeding Blue Zones Project benchmarks in categories including resident and employer engagement rates, resident well-being scores, and community policies.

According to the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index, Southwest Florida’s investment in well-being has contributed to measurable improvements and associated cost savings across its communities. The overall 2021 Index score aggregated for Southwest Florida’s eight certified communities rose to 72.2 out of 100, a gain of 3.6 points since 2015. Each point increase in well-being score leads to an approximate 2% reduction in emergency room (ER) visits and hospital utilization, and an approximate 1% reduction in total healthcare costs. Overall well-being in the area also measures higher than both the state and nation, outpacing each by 8.2 points and 7.8 points respectively.

Additionally, as a result of the community-wide effort led by the local Blue Zones Project team:

  • Residents who report they are thriving in daily life rose 26.8% from 62.2% to 78.9% of the population;
  • Tobacco use is at an all-time low of 3.6% per capita;
  • 20.1% more residents are exercising regularly;
  • $190.2 million in avoided medical and lost productivity costs were gained over the seven years; and
  • $15.3 million in add-on grant funding was generated for the communities.

These impressive measures are the direct result of the participation of nearly 275,000 individuals and more than 800 organizations who implemented Project programs, activities, and best practices. More than 60 new community policies which were implemented as part of the Project have improved built environment infrastructure, food systems, and tobacco use across the region to support better health among residents.

“Southwest Florida’s stunning results speak for themselves. Through the coordination and commitment of partners, residents, and organizations, the communities have achieved incredible well-being outcomes during challenging times,” said Ben Leedle, CEO of Blue Zones and co-founder of Blue Zones Project. “The visionary leadership of NCH Healthcare System sets a healthcare industry standard by serving as a catalyst and trusted agent for building healthier communities.”

Over the past several years, Blue Zones Project has been instrumental in helping partners in the area come together not only throughout the pandemic, but also during and in the wake of two major hurricanes. In these times of crisis, the Project focused on establishing initiatives to prepare individuals and organizations for adaptability, such as the creation of the Food Policy Council, a collaboration of over 60 partners representing different aspects of the food system. In addition to securing over $1.2 million in grants, the Council introduced an online platform to connect those with excess food – like grocery stores, restaurants, and clubs – with nearby emergency food providers who serve those in need. Since launching the initiative in Southwest Florida in 2021, nearly 310,000 pounds of food have been ‘rescued’ to help local residents. Blue Zones Project’s partnerships with local organizations, such as the Food Policy Council, enabled better coordination and distribution of food after Hurricane Ian, as well as aided in the delivery of tetanus shots and emergency supplies in neighborhoods that experienced devastation.

“The determination demonstrated by the communities of Southwest Florida, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, is proof positive of the impact that people can make when they rally around a focused and sustained commitment to community well-being,” said Michael Acker, senior vice president of community and urban services at Sharecare. “Despite the loss and challenges many experienced, the region – thanks to the dedicated efforts of the local Project staff, sponsors, volunteers, and committee members – has established a strong foundation for population health that will yield positive results for years to come. We admire the grit, spirit, and dedication of Southwest Florida’s residents, local employers, and community organizations, and look forward to the next phase of this work in partnership with NCH Healthcare System.”

Over the next two years, the Project will continue to collaborate with community partners with a focus on well-being sustainment. With the utilization of Sharecare’s measurement resources, opportunities and needs across the covered area will be identified to apply targeted resources to support at-risk populations. The community also will continue to implement local policies that support food access, reduce tobacco use, and improve the built environment, and build upon existing infrastructure in the places where people spend time – such as worksites, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, and faith communities.

“At NCH Healthcare System, our mission is to help everyone in our communities live longer, happier, and healthier lives,” said Paul Hiltz, CEO of NCH Healthcare System. “We brought Blue Zones Project to Southwest Florida in 2015 with the goal of decreasing chronic disease rates and helping residents live longer lives in better health. Through the expansion of the initiative over the past seven years, we’ve seen a measurable reduction in chronic health risks and increased well-being across the community, which is a direct reflection of our residents’ strength and their will to improve despite the myriad of challenges they may face.”

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