Blue Zones Project benefits Willamette View employees as well as residents

A group of Willamette View staff with a banner in front of them and a plaque signifying becoming a Blue Zone project

On top of teaching 24 fitness classes each week at Willamette View, Rachel Sandage has also had the opportunity to be a student on the Portland senior living community’s campus.

One thing Sandage really enjoys is sitting side-by-side with residents and her fellow employees during yoga classes taught by a resident.

She’s also had the chance to take an improv workshop, an experience that lets people see each other’s silly side.

“That’s been the most fun,” said Sandage. “Employees and residents… get to see each other in a different way, and it’s just hysterically funny.”

The classes are among the many offerings available to Willamette View employees through the recently implemented Blue Zones Project program. The innovative program promotes wellness in the workplace in a variety of ways, including giving staffers access to fitness classes; nutritional, financial and health education seminars; and creative arts programs.

In fact, the community is doing so much to promote employee heath that it has earned recognition from the Portland Business Journal as being one of Oregon’s Healthiest Employers for the third year in a row.

“We’ve had a long-standing culture of wellness for our residents. The Blue Zones Project helped us bring that culture to the employees.”

David Kohnstamm, wellness director

Kohnstamm adds that part of Willamette View’s goal is to nurture collaboration between residents and employees in making the community the healthiest possible place to both live and work.

Two months ago, Willamette View was awarded official Blue Zones Project Worksite Approved status. Locally, Blue Zones are modeled after places in the world recognized by National Geographic as having the highest longevity. Studies showed that Blue Zones around the globe share nine common elements: factors such as nutrition from whole foods; low consumption of meat and processed foods; more walking as a means of transportation and natural movement; a connection with the community and being social with friends, family and neighbors; and other commonalities that include healthy, responsible consumption of wine.

Organizations such as the Cambia Health Foundation first brought the Blue Zones Project to Oregon, working with sites where there was interest in becoming Blue Zones Project-approved. A three-year grant from Cambia enabled Willamette View to participate. Kohnstamm felt the employee wellness aspect of the initiative would dovetail effectively with the efforts promoting health and fitness that were already being undertaken at Willamette View.

“The project had you look at your menu of best practices, and make sure your community was doing as many as possible. Willamette View was already doing a lot,” said Kohnstamm. “We did more and earned the Blue Zones Project Worksite Approved status.”

Three people holding a plaque to signify becoming a Blue Zone project

Willamette View earned that approval by accumulating a certain number of “points” awarded for the various ways health-focused measures were integrated into the community. Examples include installing bike racks for employees who ride to work, swapping out cookies for kale chips and fresh fruit and veggies at staff meetings, and offering more vegetarian options in break rooms. There are also designated Blue Zones Project parking spaces that are farthest from the community’s main entrance, and signs in break rooms encouraging employees to use smaller plates and to stop eating when they are nearly full to avoid overeating.

Other measures have taken the form of activities and events, such as one project in which employees kept a 21-day “gratitude journal” documenting what they’re thankful for — which aligns with one of the Blue Zones Project principles of having purpose in life. Information was also distributed on nutrition, financial wellness, smoking cessation, stress management, and meditation during an employee wellness and safety fair. On a weekly basis, employees are encouraged to participate in fitness classes with residents, which can be adjusted to challenge everyone’s fitness level, no matter what their ages.

Along the way, all efforts are being guided by members of FITcrew, an employee wellness committee charged with devising new things to try — such as standing during meetings or taking meditation breaks during the work day.

Employees such as Sandage are taking advantage. In addition to teaching fitness classes in which both residents and employees participate, she attends as many health and wellness events on campus as possible.

“I’m one hundred percent behind it. I think it’s one of the things that makes Willamette View a fabulous place to work.”

Rachel Sandage, fitness instructor