Healthy Body

3 Lessons for Longevity From the Healthiest Community in the United States

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/Blaine Harrington III and Benedek; Graphics: Well+Good Creative

Philosophers, scholars, and poets have searched for the ingredients of a good life since the beginning of time. Ask the folks at U.S. News and World Report, and they’ll tell you that living a healthy life really comes down to the factors of equity, education, and housing. According to research based on 84 indicators, the 17,950 residents of Los Alamos County, a wealthy enclave in northern New Mexico, have made a home in the healthiest community in America.

Leading up to World War II, a top-secret part of Los Alamos known as White Rock became the United States headquarters for developing the atomic bomb as the epicenter of the Manhattan Project. Flash forward more than 75 years years, and the community thrives thanks to nuclear research institution Los Alamos National Laboratory, which employs thousands of residents in the neighboring communities, and the surrounding landscape replete with scenic hiking trails and endless vistas. In Los Alamos County, soaking up the soothing, brain-massaging benefits of sunshine and nature is as easy as stepping out of your front door.

Close proximity to the natural world isn’t the only factor that gives Los Alamos residents a leg up in the wellness department. They have a distinct advantage when it comes to accessing the resources that help you stay well within the United States. With a life expectancy of 83.5 years, almost 40 percent of the county’s residents hold a master’s degree or higher, the vast majority have access to health insurance, and the county’s median income exceeds $115,000 (far beyond the national median of approximately $50,000). While those aren’t the only indicators of health, they do make a major difference in creating a foundation for one’s well-being.

“Yet this idyllic community is situated in the second-poorest state in the U.S., and the surrounding counties of Santa Fe, Sandoval and Rio Arriba all have higher poverty rates, generally unhealthier populations and shorter life expectancies,” writes U.S. News and World Report. These communities are also more ethnically diverse than Los Alamos, which is predominantly white, much like other communities ranked highly on the list, including Falls Church, Virginia (an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.), and Pitkin County, Colorado (encompassing ultra-wealthy Aspen).

Below, you’ll find the three guiding principles that the people of Los Alamos have to share with the rest of us who are just trying to figure out this life. You can never have too many longevity tips, right?

What to learn about longevity from the healthiest community in America

1. Venture into the great outdoors—and do it often

Something that sets Los Alamos apart from so much of the country is that almost everyone has a trailhead just minutes from their doorstep. That means hikes, camping, climbing, trail running, and marshmallow-roasting are all on the docket—and what could be better?

This aspect of Los Alamos plays into the health category U.S. News and World Report refers to as “environment,” or the air and water, natural environment, and natural hazards near the place you live. While all three factors obviously aren’t equally accessible, let the residents of Los Alamos remind you that any green space deserves your love and attention.

Research shows that spending time in the sunshine (with your SPF) improves cognition, busts stress, and so much more. Find a local park, forest, or beach, and let the colors of nature heal you. Even something as simple as literally hugging a tree unlocks a whole host of benefits.

2. Eat fresh and healthy foods

The folks of Los Alamos have access to healthy, fresh food—despite the fact that they’re nestled in a pretty secluded location. Easy access to healthy food isn’t a given in every community, but dietitians say it is possible to build a grocery list on a budget that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables. And, of course, healthy eating looks different for different people, but generally speaking, dietitians recommend filling your plate with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Bonus points for taking your meal with you on a hike.

Here’s what you need to know about intuitive eating:

3. Belong to a community, not just a county

The residents of Los Alamos county go all-in on creating community (especially in non-pandemic times). With $5 group swimming classes, squads of triathletes, and plenty of group outdoor activities, the Los Alamos community believes in living a better life together. Many studies have suggested lower rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and possibly even cancer for people who regularly engage with members of their community in any capacity. Right now, joining a triathlon team or swimming at your local pool might not be an option—but you can still make pals online who can become your friends once this is all behind us or enlist your quarantine pod for (safe, socially-distanced) outdoor adventures right now.

Originally published September 22, 2020; this article was updated September 24, 2020, with information regarding the demographics and location of Los Alamos.

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