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February 26, 2024
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The Hottest Buzzword in Wellness Seeps Into Real Estate


As the director of online sales for the builder CC Homes, Lorraine Sanchez encourages prospective buyers to go see the company’s houses in Ave Maria, a town in southwest Florida.

Since last year, she has had a new marketing tool: Ave Maria is “certified” as a blue zone, a place geared to helping people live healthy, active lives.

“It’s a great selling point,” Ms. Sanchez said.

The term “blue zone” was coined two decades ago when Dan Buettner, an explorer for National Geographic, was investigating places around the world where people regularly lived to 100 and beyond. He deduced that residents of these mostly small, remote locales had such long, healthy lives because they stayed active, ate plant-based meals and formed lasting social ties, among other practices.

The concept has become the latest wellness buzzword: Blue Zones, the company that sprang from Mr. Buettner’s research, has put its trademark on books, canned beans, bottled tea, frozen burrito bowls and even a series on Netflix.

Now the real estate industry has jumped into the game. Blue Zones runs initiatives that certify towns and cities that meet healthy lifestyle criteria, and they help others remake themselves to promote longevity. The initiatives — often funded by health care systems and insurance companies with a vested interest in a hale and hearty population — promote solutions like smoking bans, biking paths and group activities that foster a sense of belonging.

Eighty places in the United States — from Bakersfield, Calif., to Corry, Pa. — have adopted these initiatives, called Blue Zone Projects. Some developers take inspiration from Blue Zones even if they are not seeking official certification.

But in some cases, it appears to be more a marketing strategy than anything else, joining a flurry of real estate certification programs and having little to do with the modest way of life that Blue Zones is meant to reflect.

A luxury hotel and condominium project in Miami is using the Blue Zones moniker for a medical facility on the premises that will offer plastic surgery. And there has been pushback in some quarters, including a part of Phoenix with a large minority population. Some nonprofit groups there wrote a letter criticizing an effort to organize a Blue Zones initiative, saying it would compete with plans already in progress, draining resources and funding.

“This is like Lifestyle Medicine 101,” said Janelle Applequist, an associate professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications at the University of South Florida. “This is stuff we’ve known forever. They’re just repackaging it.”

Mr. Buettner defended his company’s approach, saying it was based on exhaustive research and that instead of trying to convince individuals to change their behavior, as other wellness programs do, it focuses on changing the environment to make healthy choices easier.

“On the surface it might look like what’s been done before,” he said. “But every single component of what we do is underpinned with evidence.”

The Blue Zones phenomenon started when Mr. Buettner learned that the Japanese island of Okinawa produced the oldest people in the world, and in 1999 he set out to learn why.

Within a decade, he and other researchers had identified four more blue zones: small communities in Italy, Costa Rica and Greece as well as Loma Linda, Calif., which had a high proportion of Seventh-day Adventists, many of them vegetarians. (The “blue” in blue zones came from the ink marks made on maps pinpointing places where centenarians were concentrated.)

Mr. Buettner distilled what residents of the blue zones had in common and set out to spread the gospel in books, articles and talks. He founded Blue Zones to manage all these activities and is now chairman.

“I never set out to be a longevity guru,” Mr. Buettner says at the outset of his Netflix series.

Some questioned his claims and data. And since his initial investigations, some of the original blue zones have lost their longevity edge as processed foods supplanted meals made with homegrown ingredients and the sedentary ways of modern life took hold.

But Mr. Buettner recently anointed a sixth blue zone: Singapore. The Southeast Asian island was different from the earlier five, which had grown organically, because its governmental policies nudged people to make healthier choices.

Mr. Buettner had tested the idea of tweaking people’s surroundings to encourage healthy living with a project in a small Minnesota city, Albert Lea, in 2009. Changes spurred by the project — which included adding sidewalks so people could walk to shops — resulted in gains in life expectancy and a more vibrant downtown, Blue Zones proponents say. Property values rose, too.

Today Adventist Health, a faith-based health care system, owns Blue Zones. And Sharecare, a digital health company, has been running many of the Blue Zone Projects, paying licensing and royalty fees to use the name and tenets. Localities, in turn, pay $3 million to more than $40 million for the initiatives.

The NCH Healthcare System initiated a Blue Zone Project in southwest Florida in 2015, starting in Naples, a city on the Gulf of Mexico. The project now covers 2,000 square miles encompassing smaller inland towns like Ave Maria.

Ave Maria was started in 2005 by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and a backer of Roman Catholic causes. He teamed up with the Barron Collier Companies, a developer that had long owned the land on which Ave Maria sits.

Being Catholic is not a requirement for residency, but the town’s name and its big church certainly hold appeal for Catholic home buyers.

Blue Zones certification for the community is “kind of like getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Victor Acquista, a retired primary care doctor and Ave Maria resident. He volunteers on a Blue Zones committee that has organized activities like a 30-day walking challenge and 30-day gratitude challenge.

It is perhaps less obvious what Blue Zones principles — some gleaned from the daily lives of shepherds and people who grew their own food — have to do with a 50-story, $600 million luxury tower being developed in Miami by Royal Palm Companies that will have glass elevators and a roof deck with an infinity pool.

The development, called Legacy Hotel & Residences and expected to open in 2026, will also have a Blue Zones Center, said Dan Kodsi, Royal Palm’s chief executive, describing it as “like a mall of the best longevity and wellness groups in the world.” A joint venture with Adventist Health was formed to operate the center.

Mr. Kodsi said his project would cater to the boom in medical tourism. “We’re envisioning that you come in and learn about the Blue Zone lifestyle” before proceeding to a practitioner for a treatment or surgery, he said.

It is a far cry from the original blue zone concept, but Mr. Kodsi may have hit on a winning formula for his project: He said that all 310 condos in the building had been sold and that so many practitioners had expressed interest in being part of the medical center that Royal Palm bought a nearby property to make room for everyone.

Despite the growing popularity of blue zones, some organizers are finding resistance.

Equality Health Foundation, a nonprofit spinoff of the Equality Health primary care platform, has been working to organize a Blue Zones Project in South Phoenix, an area with a mostly Black and Hispanic population that has lower incomes and lower life expectancy than predominantly white areas nearby.

Tomás León, president of the foundation, said he was seeking to raise $10.5 million for the initiative.

But some local groups have expressed concern that Blue Zones will duplicate efforts they already have underway and that the fund-raising drive will siphon off money that otherwise might go to their projects.

For example, the Cihuapactli Collective, an advocacy group for Indigenous families, has plans for a wellness center that would require raising about $25 million, said Enjolie Lafaurie, co-executive director of operations and development. “It feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she added.

The groups also pointed out in a letter that similar projects lacked roots in the community and that efforts to organize a Blue Zones initiative had “a white savior complex.”

Mr. León said he was sensitive to the concerns of the groups that signed the protest letter and was increasing his fund-raising so funds could be directed to them.

Mr. Buettner said Blue Zone Projects could be challenging to execute, requiring a coordinated effort by people in all corners of a community.

“There’s a lot of discipline and headaches and correcting course to make things work,” he added.



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