Thriving on the Prairie

Jan Stankiewicz, community health and nutrition specialist and tribal liaison with NDSU Extension, talks with Katie Johnke of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, about blue zones, areas of the world that share and benefit from a set of habits that help increase longevity, health, and happiness.

Show Notes

Jan Stankiewicz: Welcome to thriving on the prairie, a podcast exploring issues concerning families and communities and inspires North Dakota movers, shakers and community difference makers to engage in lifelong learning. I'm Jan Stankiewicz, Community health and nutrition specialist and tribal liaison with NDSU Extension. And today I'm with Katie Johnke, who is who works for Bismarck Burleigh Public Health, and we will be diving into blue zones work, all that's going on in the state and around Bismarck. So Katie, welcome.

Katie: Thank you for having me today.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah, so why don't you tell us a little bit about your role with Bismarck Burleigh Public Health?

Katie: So I am the nutrition services coordinator at Bismarck Burleigh Public Health. And what that entails is just focusing on community livability, health and wellness for the entire city of Bismarck and our residents and just looking to make our community  a healthier place to live.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah and that's a really nice partnership, so too, full disclosure, Katie and I work together on many projects, so Extension and public health has a really strong partnership in the Bismarck community so, this is a really, what we're going to be talking about today, is just a really great tie-in for the that kind of a partnership. Which brings us to the topic of blue zones, which people might be wondering what blue zones are, maybe they've heard of it. But I think in North Dakota it might be a little bit of a new topic, Katie what what what is a blue zone or what are we talking about when we, when we reference blue zones.

Katie: So blue zones are areas of the world that share and benefit from a set of habits that they call the power nine and we can get into those in a little bit. But that help that those practices together help increase longevity, health, and happiness. And individuals that live in these pockets across the world are living well into their 90s, 100s, with little or no chronic disease, which is huge because in the United States, what we see is, for sure as we age, chronic disease increases, but we're also seeing that in younger ages too and based off some of maybe our behaviors or habits that we take on individually and maybe even as a nation. And so these pockets of blue zones really have kind of the the if you would the perfect way of living and are great role models for other communities to pick up on some of their their habits and practices.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah and it really is astonishing, so I think it's, is it five areas across the globe that have these like little pockets of people who live very long in life, have really good quality of life too, so that's something, that it's not just about living to be 100 or more years old. It's that they can live well for that long.  And so it is kind of, you know, lots of people when we talk about health and wellness or food and nutrition people always want to know what the magic pill is or what's one thing that they can do, but blue zones is kind of like,  it's just, it's more about a culture it's more about just the way things are done and it is kind of astonishing to see the impacts of those kinds of things that's evident in in you know, like the longevity and low rates of chronic disease like you mentioned.

Katie: Yeah I think you said it perfectly, it is more about the culture and the whole, the whole way of living, not just the physical aspect, and not just trying to reach a magic number, to say you you live to 100, but you did so in great in a great way and in a good quality of life.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah, so in your introduction you mentioned the power nine, so let's tell folks what that is and what that kind of means in you know, health and wellness and blue zones conversations.

Katie: So the power nine are broken down into different areas of healthy living. So there's the the move section, the right outlook session section, eat wisely and connect. And so I'll go through each of those and kind of break them down a little bit more, to start with the move and the move, naturally. And what that really comes down to is that the environments, the blue zone environments and what blue zones tried to tries to do is create environments that constantly nudge people into moving without thinking about it. So it's just a natural fit to encourage movement and walking, versus forceful forceful things that are maybe right in your face, it's just things that are done without having you really realize it. Residents in the blue zones, they move all day because that's how their environments are set up and so it's just a natural way to do so. And their sedentary lifestyle, or a sedentary lifestyle of sitting throughout the day. won't necessarily be fixed by going to the gym but you need that constant movement throughout the day and so these people in the blue zones, it's not like they're going to the gym every day and i'm not saying that we don't want you to go to the gym if that's what you like to do, but that's not what they're doing. They're just moving naturally throughout the day at a consistent, consistent times and they're finding that that movement is enough to improve their physical health.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah and so when we, you know when we hear, in the United States, adults should move you know 60 minutes most days of the week, you know those kinds of things and a lot of the times. We do think “go to the gym” or do some sort of “sport” or engage in those kinds of things, whereas what they found in these blue zones is that they don't have to even like follow those, that 60 minute guideline, because the impact of them moving all the time, throughout their day, in a natural way like it makes up for those kinds of things. Is that right, like is that?

Katie: Absolutely yeah they don't have the necessarily it's not a number, they're not fixated, on all these rules and examples will go through aren't necessarily fixed on an exact number. While those are guidelines and recommendations that are helpful for people, it is just more of that natural way of living and just engaging in, in those movements, and so I think if that's something we think about in our communities here, how can you continue to move naturally throughout your day that just encourages more steps, or just more movement up and down versus the constant sitting that many of us are familiar with. Not, not just here in the Bismarck Community or North Dakota but across the United States.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah and I think too, it comes down to you know, like walking to go get some groceries or walking to the library or to school and those kinds of things, I think that those are all ways that, you know, where it gets bigger and beyond our own individual choices, so yeah.

Katie: So the next one that we have is the right outlook section and this talks about having a purpose and downshifting. And so, thinking of having a purpose is, why do you wake up in the morning? What is your what, what is your sense? And this has shown to have significant impact on life expectancy and blue zones has shared that it can, having a sense of purpose can add up to seven years of life expectancy. Which I think is really significant, just by waking up and knowing your your worth for that day. And I think that's really something that's internal for people, but something maybe to consider if you're looking to add more wellness components to your your own life and really finding value and understanding to your day to day.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah and going back to you know have it not having like a specific number to meet. So if, and if you kind of reverse it and say you know if we don't have a purpose, it can take seven years off of your life, that's kind of, that's impactful and profound and so I think it's really interesting when you can make, again, like those small shifts or small changes. And then, the result is a longer, higher quality of life, that's amazing.

Katie: Yes, and I think too, for people to understand that you don't need to have this huge idea of purpose or this huge, it can just be something very simple and personal to you, and you know, maybe you wake up in the morning because, for your family. Or you wake up, because you, you find value in the work that you do for the community, I mean it can be anything it doesn't have to be this big profound impact to the, to your own community, but just something simple.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah that's a really good point katie.

Katie: And then the next one, in that section is downshifting. And this is relating to stress, we know that stress leads to chronic inflammation and long term chronic inflammation is associated with age related disease and poor health outcomes. So stress really does have a long term effect on our health. And if we can kind of downshift and, you know, have some routines that help alleviate some of those stressful moments that's only going to benefit your health.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah and I really do think that having that downshift where we can live in a community or a culture that doesn't put a high value and premium on busy-ness and productivity and all of those things. So it's you know it's, it's almost kind of, it's in all the memes, it's something that you know people can brag about like somebody is a “hot mess” or they're running and their schedule is insane and it's almost kind of like a, or it can be used as like a badge of honor or something, and how that can really have an effect on on your health.

Katie: Yeah I think you, you said it exactly right, that it's not necessarily a good thing to be stressed and busy. And one thing that I think this past year, while it was stressful in many ways for most of us, in the beginning, I think this past year taught us a lot of about just enjoying the simple things and family, because when we weren't able to engage, especially at the very beginning of the pandemic when things were shut down, I really think that was an opportunity for people to downshift and it was a perfect example of what it's like to just live and enjoy in the moments and not have all these things pulling you in different directions. And I know personally, it was, it was nice to kind of like reset. It was a good reset button. Trying to carry some of those practices in now his life is moving forward.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah I know I think you know in some in some cases, I think there might have been a collective sigh of relief in some of those slow downs.

Katie: Yes, and so I think there's good things that have come out with that and downshifting really, just learning to find ways to simplify it a little bit. And that's not meaning, you have to say no to everything and you can't participate in things, but do things that are important to you, and that you really enjoy and find value in - can really make a big difference and can help with decreasing your stress in your life.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah absolutely.

Katie: So then we're getting into the third section of eating wisely. And in this one there's a few different ways to look at that, so they go by the 80% rule and this messaging is that you stop eating when you feel 80% full. And while that may not necessarily be new information to some of us, being able to recognize your satiety and your fullness is important. And that's something we do, you know, message in different education tools that we go through. You know don't eat to where you're feeling stuffed, but the other key piece of this is that the people in the blue zones, they actually eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, and then they don't eat after that point. So their larger meal is probably in the beginning of the day, like breakfast or a brunch style, and then their lightest meal is towards the end of the day. Which is, oftentimes, opposite of what maybe the culture is in North Dakota maybe even in just the US in general. But that's something to think about, too, is there a change, where you could maybe consider looking at that are trying it out and see see if it helps you feel differently.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah again those small shifts, yeah trying something else, seeing what might work. And then I think to some of the like the 80% rule plays into the mindfulness and the and eating without distractions and having it be an experience. You know if you think about, you know if we are having a family meal, at the end of the day, or beginning of the day, if we're switching things up, being mindful and again that downshift and slowing down a little bit to have that meal to pay attention to the cues that our body is telling us, you know those kinds of things. I think that is interesting and could also be one of those small changes, where it's just slow down a little bit.

Katie: Yeah and maybe even decrease stress levels, as I know, meal time for some, can be stressful. I know, sometimes it is at our host too and so finding those ways to incorporate these healthy changes that may be very simple if you kind of just implemented some of the key practices. The next one is plant slant is what they call it, but what this is is just focusing more on beans and lentils as a staple in their diet. And they do enjoy meat but just not as often as maybe the typical American culture diet, you would find. So just really focusing on implementing some more of those beans and lentils. Finding familiarity with them to cook and add them into more dishes. And I know NDSU Extension has great resources for cooking with beans and lentils, too.

Jan Stankiewicz: Yeah I know and it's really again, not something that, so when we're in the eating wisely category within blue zones, you know you, you might expect to have like specific or set guidelines on what to eat and how much to eat and those kinds of things.  But again it's just a way of doing things it's like what they found so there's not, a you know, you must eat X number of beans and lentils at every meal or anything like that it's just again, what they do, and then the benefits that are seen. So again with the going back again it's just astonishing, those chronic disease rates are just so low in these areas, so they must be doing something right.

Katie: Yes, and one other component and they're eating wisely and maybe it's Jan's favorite, I don't know, their wine at five.  And they enjoy one to two glasses of wine a day, so moderation, but regularly throughout the week, and they really encourage you to do so with a meal or in a social setting and they have found the expectancy difference between those that participate in a wine at five, if you will, compared to those that don't, pretty significant difference in the one that lives longer is the one that enjoys that wine at five. And so I think the key again with that is the moderation and doing so in a in a positive way and doing it with family and friends around mealtime.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah yeah I did I did say that I think they know what they're doing so it might be something to consider. But, in all seriousness, there are there are health benefits to alcoholic beverages, as well as wine, so it is something you know, to think about whether or not it's something that somebody adopts or is ready for and those kinds of things, lots of things to consider, but there are health benefits to some of those beverages.

Katie: And then the last section is which, I think, maybe doesn't get talked about a lot and it we are starting to learn more about it, but is their connect section. And this focuses on having a sense of belonging and social presence with others. And so thinking about your right tribe, and who is your social social circle that help support healthy behaviors. So who is your group of people that you, you hang out with or you are surrounds you a lot of the time, and what are their behaviors?  Are they do, they support your goals, or do they hinder some of the things that you want to accomplish in terms of a healthy lifestyle.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah and I think my brain goes back to when I was a kid and maybe a teenager when my mother would tell me, you know, “show me your friends and i'll show you your future”. I think the impacts of that and the implications of who you surround yourself with is kind of alludes to that a little bit. You know it could be a positive thing and then it can also be a not so good thing when my mom was trying to you know, help me make good decisions in my life. So I think it goes back to those kinds of things, but then, as well as healthy behaviors, yeah that's for sure.

Katie: that's great and then another kind of statement that i'm familiar with kind of with that, is “you are the the average of the five people you surround yourself with”. And so, if you think of the five people you are around the most you are the average of those individuals, and so you have a good group of five in your corner. And so it’s just an opportunity to maybe think “are these the people, for me”, and you can you know I think reflect on this at any age in life. It doesn't matter young or old. The next area that the the blue zones people kind of own is their loved ones come first. And so that they really put their family members before themselves and not in a way, where they don't take care of themselves, but they just really value their loved ones and want to love and support them.

Jan Stankiewicz: mm hmm and I think too they talked about some of the intergenerational components where you know because they live so long they've got lots of relatives i'm sure, and so, then the way that we take care of them and surround ourselves with our family. I think that it's really interesting how they how they do those things, and what that looks like with you know family gatherings and you know how things operate within a community and those kinds of things, so yeah.

Katie: yeah that intergenerational connection piece is huge and it's becoming more profound, I think, in our own community and across across the United States, too and just something to talk about more and be be more aware of. How you can involve those older adults in with the younger younger kiddos’ lives.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah and it's even when, you know, the whole, the respect for our elders and those kinds of things when there's lots of you know, knowledge and you know the the you know they're so wise and all of that, it's so true. And so, then when those younger generations are able to be around that and things get carried on you know, I think that just really makes for a really good future and a good legacy in some way.

Katie: yeah and the last one that we're going to quick just touch on is having a sense of belonging and so this comes to finding a faith based community to be a part of. And that can be any denomination any way you want to participate in that, but just having a deeper connection with a faith. And so, whatever that means to you, they have just found these components are what these blue zone pockets around the world are doing to live long and healthy lives.

Jan Stankiewicz: mm hmm and I think the the faith based community it, you know lots of times our brain goes immediately to a church or religion, but that's not necessarily the case - in some cases it is like there's one community that is a seventh day adventist community and so that's, you know, directly tied to a religion. But in other cases it's more of a spiritual kind of a thing or you know there's some some element of divine, divinity you know so it's it's not just a one size fits all kind of a thing.

Katie: Absolutely and different ways to practice that, it doesn't necessarily have to mean physically in a place either. And I think you said it perfectly, it's just having that that greater sense of connecting with something beyond beyond you. So, yeah the power nine is really a great summary I think of different practices we can consider implementing to improve our our healthy outcomes.

Jan Stankiewicz: mm hmm yeah absolutely and it really does make make you kind of step back a little bit and look at things differently and again, you know, like you mentioned, katie, it's not that the recommendations and guidelines that we have in the United States are off, or shouldn't be followed in any way it's just that the way that things are done elsewhere just helps them get to those recommendations and guidelines, without even thinking much about it. And so so it's just kind of interesting, you know how we operate, and especially in our world, katie, where we talk about health and wellness and guidelines and meeting these kinds of things on a daily basis. So then, knowing what we all know about the blue zones and what kind of is entailed in the different categories and the power nine, What does that look like in North Dakota? And what does that look like in Bismarck? Knowing that our communities and cultures aren't set up like they are in Italy or Greece or Japan. So how do we, what can we do like what or where do we start and what can we do?

Katie: So there are a lot of opportunities that I think we can take from these communities to bring to our state or our own communities. Really, the big goal is putting in those nudges in your communities to help people make healthier choices, to help them live longer and live better. And so it can be little things like farmers markets that are available in your community that you can walk to that are that are accessible by all modes of transportation. Or it can be having social connections in your community that you have a lot of great groups and work to make people find find a place, and have a connection with others. And I think, too, it's connecting practices that are going on in your community to just bring things to the next level. And I love that they use that word nudge within blue zones that's kind of one of their key words and, if you think about how can we nudge people in our own communities to just maybe make a healthier choice. And it can be something so simple, is it creating safer crosswalks for kids to walk to school? Is that something that's that simple? Or is it you know, having kids have the right hats and gloves be able to walk to school in the winter? And so there's all these different avenues to go down to improve the changes within your own community and within our own states.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah and I really like that example of, you know, kids having the right gear, you know if, when it's raining outside in in Bismarck or North Dakota our kids don't go out for recess, when like what would it look like if they all just put on ponchos and had you know some sort of rain boots or something you know? And then they could go out and still get fresh air and move their bodies, even when it is raining. Because I don't know, playing in the rain is kind of a fun thing, even for kids. So, just those kinds of things yeah, where it's not the way that we do things now, but, you know, what would it look like if we could?

Katie: And I think that's where blue zones is great, it's not saying you have to, you must, this is the only right way. It’s saying let's let's change the lens and focus on different areas  ofopportunity and like you said, what could it look like so let's just give it some thought. And maybe it's not the right fit now and that's okay, but maybe it's the right fit later, and so with these constant movements towards these better ways of doing things, because we know they're better if people are doing them and living longer and healthier, it's not going to just change overnight, or even in a year's time I mean, these are long term  changes and behavior changes that it will take for a community, for a state, for a nation to adopt some of these practices. And so being patient with that, but also being willing to go down different avenues and try new things.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah yeah that's a really good point. So switching gears just a little bit, so the city of Bismarck and the state, you know across the state too, there has been some work with blue zones already, right? And so, can you tell us a little bit about what's been going on, what might be going on and kind of how we got to the conversation today.

Katie: yeah so the North Dakota Department of Health had an opportunity to work with the blue zones project and bring them to communities in North Dakota and have community assessments done to take a deeper dive into what is already happening in communities. And fortunately, Bismarck was one of those communities that was able to participate, and I was one of the leads on the project and helped the blue zones team, and got to work alongside a great group of individuals to take a deeper dive into what we have going on in Bismarck, what things were doing really well, and what our areas of improvement. And that looks so differently in each community too. So the things that are going well here might not be going well in another community and vice versa. And so we had the opportunity to have that assessment done, and then we were provided with kind of an outcomes report or have a plan of action and currently there's just some discuss discussion going on on how do we take that to the next step and so looking at some funding that is needed to possibly take blue zones and implement it to its fullest and take it to that next step, and that is happening at the state level. And so we're kind of just waiting to hear, kind of the outcomes of those conversations, but nonetheless being able to have that deeper dive into our community, we're able to, or I'm able to, in the work that I do now and partner with Extension and other partners across our community we’re able to work on some of those things on our own, and kind of have them brought to light a little bit more and find opportunities to continue to improve in those areas.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah and I think that was one of the really neat things so that we that we saw from these assessments in the work that the Blue zones group had done, is we do kind of get to step back and see, and kind of take a look at all of the good things that kind of are going on in the community and even across the state. And so when, you know when you're in the work or even when you're not in the work and you don't really know some of the things that are going on, it's just kind of nice to have that laid out in front of you and, you know, it's a good reminder that there are good things going on. You know, so we aren't like Bismarck, North Dakota is not a blue zone, but there are good things going on. And things that really do or can make an impact on on people's health and well being, so that was kind of encouraging for me.

Katie: yeah and I think too, in, when you work in the area of health and wellness, and community livability, public health, if you will, sometimes it's hard to, I think, recognize the good things because it's just all integrated in the community. aAd it's hard to really, pull out like, oh, what have we done? And so this was a nice way to be like, wow, look at what we have accomplished! Look at the partners that we've made. And so it is kind of our own internal assessment too of even just individually, the people that were at the table like, wow we have made progress. And so I think it's great and if you're able to do that at any level you don't necessarily need a blue zones project come in to take that assessment of your community or even of your, you know your organization, it can be done. You know, what are some of the things that can be done within your own organization that may be aligned with some of these blue zones things.
That it doesn't have to be this whole big picture if you're not quite there yet.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah absolutely, that's a really good point. Yeah. So then when you talk about the different assessments and seeing the impacts and the changes that have happened, I think, also working in the health and wellness field, public health field, it's easy a little bit easy for us to get discouraged, because we don't see the drastic drop in obesity rates, we don't see the drastic change in chronic disease rates and those kinds of things. So I think it's you know, knowing that it is such a long term thing, that relaying those successes or those kinds of positive changes in a community it can be helpful and having these conversations because other people can kind of get the messaging that there's changes happening, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're free of disease and the epitome of health and wellness but that there are positive changes happening. So I think that these kinds of things can help with with that kind of narrative.

Katie: yeah and you know you think about some of the changes that are done, they may not be done, and you may not be impacted but what about the next generation? That's really what we want to think about is those coming after us. And so granted, you may able, you may be able to take advantage of some of the changes, but it's really for those to come and it is that it's that culture shift, and it's hard to do, especially when we are kind of in a super fast changing world with everything happening, you know just at the blink of an eye. But the things that really matter do take time, and so we need to remember that when we're talking about long term health and wellness and lifestyle changes, that it is going to be a slow moving moving pace, but that changes will be made along the way. And people, people will be able to start recognizing that and really see the difference as time goes on.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah yeah and then kind of tying that, as we kind of wrap up here, but tying that back to the city of Bismarck and their you know support of this kind of work, and what that means. Like how do they make the connection? Why does the city of Bismarck have care and concern for blue zones work? And what does that mean for the their residents? What does that mean for their employees? I think if you've got anything to share on that with their strategic plan or anything like that.

Katie: yeah so the city of Bismarck did go through a strategic plan in 2019 and that was a, again a deeper dive and assessment into their own their own community and what are we doing? And what are the needs of our community? And what we found that came up time and time again, was that the residents of Bismarck have a strong passion for their community and a sense of community pride that is very unique, I think, to Bismarck.  And with that, you know, our leaders and our staff that work in the city, we want our residents to want to live here. And want to stay here. We want them to grow up here and stay here. We don't want them to leave, and so, in doing that, we need to find, you know, what are these individuals wanting. And how can we make a community, that is, that is a great place to live. And really that's where that community livability, and I love that word because it's like you think about as a whole what is our committee like, in terms of livability for all ages. And so that was done through our city strategic plan and that's why the blue zones project aligns perfectly, it fits in with all of those pillars that were identified as areas of work or areas of focus.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah and I think to you know in our world, again we talk about health and wellness community health, community livability, but the impacts of this trickle into so many other areas. It trickles into the local economy, the you know workforce with job retention and attraction, you know getting college students to move here or to go to college here. It really does flow into so many other areas, it really isn't just about health and wellness. So, I can totally see where the city of Bismarck you know, having that long term, their, you know, eyes way down the road, and what that looks like you know in you know what does it look like in five or 10 or 15 years.

Katie: yeah exactly it's not just the “let's improve your blood pressure” type thing, it's let's really improve your life and your whole your whole body wellness and so you know any everything from community and family and financial and all these pieces of wellness that we think about, the blue zones projects aligns and fits in all of those pillars of this city Bismarck strategic plan to make our community, a more vibrant, healthy, safe family oriented place to live.

Jan Stankiewicz: yeah yeah agreed, and it really does align with all of the work that NDSU Extension does, and so it just is you know, I just I eat this stuff up and so it's just so exciting. So, katie I just want to thank you, as we wrap up this conversation was, it was fun for me i'm glad that you can join me today and walk us through all the blue zones work that you've been heavily involved with. So, katie just so everybody knows too, katie was kind of one of the main people integrally involved with the blue zones project and, in, likely will be as we move forward so i'm excited for what's to come and stay tuned for more. So thanks for listening to thriving on the prairie to subscribe to the podcast and access a full transcript and resources or links from this episode, visit You can find more resources for families and communities at This has been a production of NDSU Extension, extending knowledge changing lives.

What is Thriving on the Prairie?

A podcast that inspires North Dakota movers, shakers and community difference-makers to engage in lifelong learning, featuring conversations with NDSU Extension professionals and guests exploring issues concerning families and communities.