Health and Exercise Science Professor Therese Miller is Westminster College’s resident expert on Blue Zones. These five regions of the world are brimming with people in the best of health who live the longest lives and generally seem happier than anyone else on the planet. And while city planning officials in areas such as Waterloo, Iowa, and Albert Lea, Minnesota, are scrambling to adopt Blue Zone principles, Miller has quietly taught her students these concepts for nearly two decades. She also recently published the article “Creating Blue Zones: Global Perspectives in School Health and Physical Education” in the latest edition of The Missouri Journal of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.
Reflecting on her research, Miller says that internationally, people are eyeing what Blue Zone cultures are doing so well. These worldwide super regions are found in Mediterranean Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the Italian island of Sardinia, the Costa Rican peninsula, and the city of Loma Linda, California.
“Cultures and communities are adopting the principles found in these communities and asking themselves, ‘How do we get people to move more, to eat healthy, to connect with one another?’” says Miller.
Part of that connection for Miller, personally, involves simple day-to-day activities at Westminster, like walking away from her office at the Historic Gymnasium to fill her water bottle at Westminster Hall. “I look for opportunities to move during the day – visiting instead of emailing, walking and standing instead of sitting at my desk,” she says, adding, “And I enjoy Health Trek classes on campus when I don’t have classes, appointments, or meetings.”
Connecting with faculty, staff, and students at those wellness classes is one of the nine Blue Zone principles that Miller makes sure her students internalize. She regularly tells them, “As adults, when you leave college, it’s important to have a community experience.”
Students in Miller’s classes will do just that this fall. Health Education students will be teaching third graders at Bartley Elementary School in Fulton about healthy food choices, incorporating lessons from Jamie Oliver’s TED talk, “Teach Every Child About Food.” Westminster students will introduce the kids to what Miller refers to as a “plant slant”: “It’s a nutritional approach that is plant based, garnished with relatively small amounts of meat,” Miller explains in her Missouri AHPERD Journal article. “The Blue Zone diet is nuanced by local varieties of greens, herbs, beans, tubers, and fresh fruits.”
But what’s really the point of all that healthy eating? Again, Miller emphasizes overall quality of life and the Blue Zone principle of community involvement, but with a twist. Blue Zone researchers such as Miller find that people are the happiest when they interact not only with people their own age but with others from different generations.
In keeping with that principle, Miller organized a local intergenerational dance in December 2017 which brought together elderly residents from Fulton’s Presbyterian Manor, various individuals from Callaway County Special Services, and local children from Fulton Preschool.
Dancing, meditating, relaxing – all are Blue Zone practices that Miller teaches specifically in her Stress Management classes. What does that look like for a Stress Management student? Miller explains that one day this spring, she conducted class on the Hill and flew kites. “One of my students said, ‘That was the best day of my life!’” Miller recalls with a chuckle.
Ultimately, the student’s delight is what Blue Zone cultures mastered naturally long ago – happiness that comes as a result of finding your purpose, a Blue Zone principle. And while Westminster College strives to help all students find “Power in Purpose,” Miller prepares her students specifically to ask themselves the Blue Zone question, “What do I live for beyond work?” Fortunately for Westminster College, Miller’s purpose appears to be turning the Blue Jay Nation into one of our nation’s truly authentic Blue Zones.