From the Editor: Blazing the Trail to Better Health

BY February 23, 2016

Speaking of Southwest Florida Hidden Treasures, consider Deb Millsap a walking example of such. Blond, trim, radiant, she enters my office like a ray of sunshine—kind of perfect for her job as executive director for the Southwest Florida Blue Zones Project. The mission is to bring a healthy lifestyle to the area, and Deb’s ready to discuss the early successes since the Blue Zones start last March. But, as she describes her career on the way to this transformative job, you can see—in her own challenges—the issues that must be addressed to meet the project’s goals.

Deb, 54, grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and at age 11 heard something from a grandma she adored that—who knew?—would set the course for her life. “If you have your health,” her grandmother said, “you have it all.” “I looked at my health as a gift,” Deb says, and, indeed, she ate properly (“the nearest McDonald’s was too far away,” she says) and kept active with running, gymnastics and cheerleading through high school and college. She valued her time with friends as social nourishment.

Learning Experiences

So there were the college degrees—the bachelor’s in biology from Mount Union College in Ohio, the master’s in education from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. She loved those grad school courses in psychology, nutritional science and exercise physiology. But over those years and beyond, there were other learning experiences, sometimes very painful ones. At 19, she reacted to a disturbing family problem by not eating enough, a disorder that lasted for three years. Counseling helped pull her through. Along the way, there was another lesson absorbed: “I was a perfectionist until I saw it didn’t work.”

Since her arrival in Naples in 1985, Deb has served the wellness cause—17 years for the NCH Healthcare System’s Wellness and Nutrition & Health Center, 12 and half years for the Florida Department of Health in Collier County as director of nutrition and health education and as the public information officer.

Memorable people and moments? Back in her 20s while teaching a nutrition class, she marveled at an older woman’s resilience in dealing with the death of her husband. Deb bonded with her—“she became my Naples mom”—has taken inspiration from her when she had loss in her life and still sees her regularly. A 450-pound man in his 30s was perhaps her most challenging and rewarding case. He couldn’t read, was lonely, had never had a date. “I got him a literary tutor,” Deb says. “He learned to read, got a job, felt better about himself, lost 200 pounds and began socializing.”

Now, for her, it’s the exciting Blue Zones Project. With representatives from law enforcement, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, job sites and churches and six full-time employees, she’s leading the charge to help the people of Southwest Florida live longer and better. 

Two grocery stores—Wynn’s Market and Whole Foods—have won Blue Zones approval for things like stocking checkout lanes with fruits and vegetables for impulse buyers. The vegan Cider Press Café has also won approval, and Shula’s and Mel’s Diner are building in healthful components as well. On the faith-based front, Unity Church of Naples provides the oh-so-necessary social connections we need for emotional health, has installed bike racks and has set out walking paths for exercise.

What We Can Do

And, says Deb, here’s how we can help ourselves: (1) Find ways to move more naturally. Are there trips you take by car that you could take by bike or on foot? (2) Eat more plant-based food and less meat. (3) Eat mindfully and stop before you feel stuffed. (4) Find what you’re passionate about and do it more often. (5) Ask yourself what helps you to de-stress and, if it’s healthy, practice it daily. (6) Nurture your relationships.

Fine, Deb. And what about your efforts? “Although I used to be somewhat fanatical about my exercise and nutrition,” she says, “I now strive for balance. I enjoy jogging, walking and cycling for fun, not fast. I’m happiest spending time outdoors. My diet is primarily plant-based. Nurturing relationships with my fiancé, friends and family is a priority. And, finally, my faith grounds me when all else gets off-balance.” Yes, she’s sure walking the walk. Let’s all join in.

A Hearty Welcome

We’re delighted to have our new president/group publisher, Brett Wilson, on board since November. He’s savvy (21 years with Time Inc. publications, major jobs with Parade and USA Today), loves a good laugh, and is joyfully engaging with the people and attractions here. You’ll see a lot of him out in the community. Guaranteed he’ll have you smiling in no time.

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