04/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Want to Live Longer? Study People Who Do

If you want to improve the health of Americans, why not look around the world for places where people live the longest, healthiest lives and try to copy whatever it is they're doing? That's exactly what Dan Buettner has done. He is the author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest. Examples of areas he calls "blue zones" are Sardinia, Okinawa, Costa Rica (the Nicoya Peninsula), Ikaria (a Greek island), and Loma Linda, California. Things residents have in common include exercising regularly, eating more vegetables and less meat, engaging in social networking, and having a sense of purpose.

Buettner teamed up with AARP The Magazine to see if he could create a healthier environment and lifestyle for the 18,000 residents of Albert Lea, Minnesota. It was literally a town makeover involving restaurants, schools, businesses, parents, and town leaders. They created bike and walking paths, made restaurant menus more nutritious, prohibited junk food in schools, and created projects such as a community garden and workshops that helped people become more engaged with each other. When the five-month "Vitality Project" ended in October, 2009 a total of 3,464 residents had participated. The average projected lifespan rose by 2.9 years and residents uniformly reported feeling better physically and emotionally.

This approach makes so much sense to me. We've all heard the statistics. Two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, increasing their risk of medical problems like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Most people cannot simply "snap out of" their unhealthy lifestyles through willpower - even if they're motivated to change. Experts like Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, have shown how difficult it is to eat properly and live a healthy lifestyle when we're surrounded by an environment that promotes lousy habits. So change the environment.

Click below to watch my interview with Buettner:

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