Dan Buettner: For 20 years, I was an explorer, and you learn that to be relevant as an explorer it's not only about going out in the world, it's bringing back something that's relevant for people. It's no longer about making it to the top of a mountain, I don't think, because they've been to the top of every mountain, and we've been to all the poles. I had done a series of scientific expeditions that sought to unravel ancient mysteries, and I more or less stumbled upon Okinawa about 10 years ago as a place that had the highest disability-free life expectancy in the world. So, in other words, people were living longer, healthier lives than any place else in the world, and I reasoned that there had to be a cultural explanation for that, not a genetic one, since it was a heterogeneous place. That was the initial idea.
FL: How did the Vitality Project start?
DB: I came back and wrote [ The Blue Zones ], and the book did well. I got to be on your boss's program. But inevitably a question arises: Okay, so you've told us what the longest lived people in the world do—now how do we get people to do it?
I have a very good partnership with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. And there's a very highly regarded scientist there named Robert Jeffery. They call him the "obesity czar"—he's been studying obesity long before it became an epidemic in this country. He'll tell you that no diet in the history of the world has worked significantly for the long term. You can get people really excited about it for about six months, but then they kind of fall off the wagon. You lose about 90 percent of them in that first six months and the eight of the remaining 10 percent in the next two years. When it comes to longevity, diets don't work. We have the mistaken belief here in America that we can eat our way to health and longevity. And, in fact, the reverse of that is true.
Likewise, exercise programs: I'm very close to the people who own Life Time Fitness, and they'll tell you they get lots of people on in January, but an enormous percentage of them are gone by September and within three years they're almost all gone. So that isn't the ticket.
So then we started to think about how do you do a public health initiative that actually sticks? The central tenets of the Vitality Project is that if we can change people's environments in permanent or semipermanent ways, we can then affect long-term change. We found 28 research-backed interventions that will have a 2 to 5 percent impact on a population. We don't have to hit a home run with every one of them, or even any one of them, but the idea is that you add up the influence of 28 small things and you get a big impact. And that's indeed what happened.