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Texas Mayor Hopes to Turn Cow Town into Long-Living 'Blue Zone'

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price wants to turn her Texas cow town into an oasis of healthy living.
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/ Source: NBC News

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price wants to turn her Texas cow town into an oasis of healthy living.

"This isn't about living longer," Price told NBC's Cynthia McFadden. "This is about having more life in your years."

A recent Gallup-Healthways poll measuring well-being ranked Fort Worth 61st out of 189 cities across the country after assessing a variety of health-related factors, including stress management and physical health.

"I believe we can substantially raise those numbers," Price said. "I really do believe we can. And I think long term, 20 years out, we'll be way up in the top 50 percent or more."

To get there, Price has turned to Dan Buettner and his "Blue Zones" approach to health.

Buettner, an explorer and National Geographic fellow, spent 10 years searching for spots around the globe that had the highest number of citizens living long and healthy lives. He dubbed those places—Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Sardinia—Blue Zones.

From studying those zones of longevity, Buettner came up with a list of lifestyle modifications that seemed to improve not only lifespan, but also health near the end of life. Among them are an emphasis on greater activity and on switching to a more plant-based diet. He described these and other lifespan extending modifications in his new book, "The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People."

"We foreshorten our lives with our lifestyle," Buettner said. "About 80 percent of chronic disease, cancer, dementia, heart disease, and diabetes is avoidable. And what these people [who live in Blue Zones] are doing better than us is avoiding diseases that foreshorten our lives."

And Fort Worth may offer the opportunity to show just how powerful those lifestyle changes can be.

"I think Fort Worth is the biggest opportunity," Buettner said.

The subject has been on Price's mind for a long time, especially when it comes to the topic of obesity in the city's kids.

"Kids spend far too much time in front of screens," she said. "They eat fast food. Their diabetes rate is incredible. Estimates are this is the first generation that will live shorter. And that's really worried me as a mother, a grandmother, and as a community leader."

One way to achieve change is to encourage restaurants to make subtle changes, like not putting salt on the table and, intriguingly, to stop calling healthy options, "healthy."

Buettner explains it this way.

"Do you know the adjective that most assures you won't order an entrée? It's the healthy choice. Nobody wants a dang healthy choice. So change 'healthy salad' to 'crispy Italian salad,' and the orders go up. "

One of the major changes suggested by Buettner is switching over to a plant-based diet. So, in the heart of cattle country, is Buettner telling everyone to completely give up their beef?

"I don't think we need to poke the snake here," he said. "There are lots of things we can do with Fort Worth . . . without necessarily badmouthing any one food in particular."

Price isn't worried about grabbing steer by the horns. "If you're used to eating beef six days a week, maybe you eat it four days a week," she said. "Or maybe you eat four ounces instead of eight ounces. Maybe mostly you just think about what you're doing."

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Another big part of the plan is to add sidewalks throughout the city.

"If you just make a neighborhood more walkable the activity level goes up by 30 percent," Buettner said. "And you don't have to give people expensive gym memberships or yoga classes, or any of this stuff. You just have to make the active choice easy."

Price's first success came with a fitness challenge she issued to Fort Worth's children.

"The kids tracked their screen time, their activity time, their water intake and their fruit and vegetable intake," she said. "And the key was the parents had to agree to let their kids do this and do it with their kids." And that included the exercise portion of the program.

The results: a 4 percent weight loss.

So far, 25,000 children have completed the challenge, Price said, adding that "3,400 of those kids have gone from being obese to a healthy weight."

Price says she's not worried she'll get the kind of backlash that New York's Mayor Bloomberg got when he started to mandate changes like limiting the size of soft drinks or banning trans fats.

"This isn't about us dictating to you," she said. "I'm not nanny-stating. We're not passing any ordinances. I'm very conservative. I'm the last person that would say, 'You have to do this.'"

Ultimately Price believes that by just making healthy choices easier she can have a big impact on the lives of her citizens, one that will make their senior years far more enjoyable.

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"Let's have more life in our years," she said. "Let's be able to enjoy our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. Be able to pick them up and to dance with them—or go rollerblading if you want to."