I’ve been to Vancouver last year and even though I’ve not been to every province in Canada, BC has got to be the most beautiful province in Canada. I loved it. I would definitely have a 2nd home in BC or just most there altogether. Vancouver reminds me of San Francisco, California a lot. It’s no surprise people there are fit, how can you not be when everything is on hills, you don’t need a gym if you live there.
It’s 9 a.m. in Richmond, B.C. Lois Carson Boyce flips on her computer, grabs a coffee and checks her e-mail. Yikes. Messages are pouring in, reminding her about this meeting or that volunteer duty. But Lois isn’t fazed. The peppery widow’s three day-planners help sort out her busy life.
Another coffee and an hour later, the 88-year-old hits the tree-lined streets of Richmond, 20 minutes south of Vancouver. But getting from meeting to meeting can be slow going; Lois has so many friends — and she stays in close touch with many of them — and is always making new, younger ones, “so I have someone to come to my funeral,” she jokes.
She doesn’t put her feet up for good until midnight, when she reads a bit of her latest book — Elizabeth E. May’s How to Save the World in Your Spare Time. “It just never stops,” she says.
Nor will it soon.
The country’s longest-living people
If Lois is vibrant and fit as a fiddle, so is nearly everyone in Richmond, home of the country’s healthiest and longest-living people, according to various sources, including Statistics Canada. With a life expectancy of 83.4 years, Richmondites not only beat the Canadian average (79.3 years), but they also outstrip even the Japanese (81.4), thought to be one of the world’s healthiest people.
So what does Richmond have that other Canadian cities don’t?
Ask Lois. She moved here 52 years ago, as a young wife and mother of four, and is now the city’s most vigorous cheerleader. “We have a great climate; it’s a clean, clean city; and the community is committed to being better in every way,” she says.
What makes a healthy community
But don’t take her word for it. According to the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition, which provides health-related guidelines to all Canadian communities, there are some basic ingredients that make up healthy communities: mild weather without extreme temperatures, an unspoiled environment and clear air. Residents should also be a cut above — educated, spiritual, fit, well paid, happy at work and willing to spend their spare time volunteering.
Sure, most Canadian cities have some of those criteria, admits Rick Hansen, Canada’s beloved wheelchair athlete and president and CEO of the Rick Hansen Foundation — but only Richmond has them in spades. Hansen chose Richmond in 1987 as the ideal place to raise his kids (he has three daughters now) with wife Amanda following his 34-country Man in Motion Tour. “We wanted to find a community that was multicultural and represented the future of Canada.”
And the future is fitness. Physical activity has long been a passion in Richmond. The city is a site for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, but the community of just 185,000 souls has already given Canada scores of elite athletes, such as world-ranked snowboarder Alexa Loo and 1984 Olympic silver medallist Charmaine Crooks. Any satellite image shows why. Set on 17 islands in the Fraser River Estuary, the city boasts 80 kilometres of walking, biking and running trails; 90 parks; a 600-member cricket club; swimming pools; running clubs; hockey rinks; a marathon clinic; a soon-to-be-completed Olympic speed-skating oval; world-class kayak and rowing facilities; and Minoru Park, the city’s centrepiece sports-cum-community complex.
Not that this fascination with fitness happened overnight. Once a sleepy fishing village, Richmond was either ignored by Vancouverites or mocked as “Ditchmond” because, in a region of mountainous beauty, the highest point in town was the dyke holding back the Fraser. That was before retired Olympic runners Dr. Doug and Diane Clement arrived in 1961, “so Doug could join a medical practice,” recalls Diane, author of the Chef on the Run cookbooks. “This was a very, very small community. There wasn’t even a hospital.”
But the spartan town did have one thing — visionaries at the parks and recreation department who said if the couple would start a running club, the city would build facilities. The gamble paid off, big-time. The Richmond Kajaks Track and Field Club became one of the most successful in Canada and has since produced 25 Olympic competitors. These days, running is the city’s most popular pastime, says Dr. Jack Taunton, the 2010 Games chief medical officer and a longtime resident who recently moved to Vancouver for work.
There were also environmental visionaries on city council. Almost 50 per cent of the city’s waste is now recycled — up from just eight per cent a decade ago. Council now includes a “triple bottom line” for environmental, economical and social sustainability when evaluating major city projects; it has Green (energy efficient and environmentally sound) Building Standards and is planning a massive environmental and heritage park.
The weather gods smile on Richmond, too. It’s blessed with Vancouver-like mild temperatures, but 30 per cent less rain. Without climatic extremes, says Taunton, “there are very few days when you can’t be out there, cycling, walking or being active.” And that’s bound to add years to your life. A 20-year University of California Irvine study of 10,000 elderly people found that those who could exercise just 30 minutes a day throughout their lives were most likely to live to 90.
Yet, the city’s allure is more than sunshine and walking trails; residents make other healthy lifestyle choices, too. According to Statistics Canada, Richmondites have the lowest smoking (nine per cent) and obesity (six per cent) rates in the country. Locals also have an exceptional diet, in part due to the influence of the vibrant East and Southeast Asian community that makes up nearly 50 per cent of the lower-mainland population (one Eastern influence is not overeating). As well, adds Taunton, people in Richmond are conscious of eating locally. “It’s a huge fishing area, so you can also buy fish right off the dock,” he says.
On the home front
And in their personal lives, residents appear to be doing better than their compatriots. They’re happier (86 per cent are married or live common law, nearly double the national average), wealthier (half earn $50,000 a year or more, compared with 21.5 per cent nationally) and wiser (67 per cent have at least some postsecondary education, against 39 per cent of Canadians).
Then there are the less concrete contributors to health — things such as reducing stress, focusing on balance and living life in the present — that seem to proliferate in Richmond. “If you can feel good about your career, yourself, your ability to invest in your family and your community, you have balance in life,” says Hansen. He may be right. A recent American study of centenarians found that 61 per cent attributed their longevity to deep contentment with their life’s achievements.
Richmond residents also seek some kind of spiritual connection — yet another healthy habit. While religious attendance declines countrywide, it’s on the rise in Vancouver (incorporating Richmond). “There’s wonderful spirit in the people here,” observes Hansen. “Through the eyes of our children, they’re immersed in an incredibly healthy lifestyle and community stewardship that involves family and friends. It’s embedded in the people here.”
It’s in that community spirit that residents lend a helping hand where needed. “Volunteers are the fabric of our community,” says Mayor Malcolm Brodie. “People extend themselves and give thousands of hours a week.”
Youthful Lois, this year’s British Columbia Community Achievement Award winner, is a stellar example of this selfless spirit. “In anything I’ve done, I’m just one of many trying to make things better for everyone. And what other way would you want to go?”
Tips for living longer
1. Live in the moment. Constant worrying impairs the immune system.
2. Stay connected. People with strong family and social connections suffer less depression and recover from illness more quickly.
3. Make new friends. Seniors with many friends outlive those with few by 22 per cent.
4. Get in touch with your spiritual side. In one survey, 23 per cent of respondents listed spirituality as a key longevity factor.
5. Eat fresh, local fruit and vegetables where possible.
6. Eat until you’re hara hachi bu (Japanese for “80 per cent full”).
7. Get involved. Volunteers have lower premature death rates and less risk for heart disease.
8. Keep active. Walk, use stairs and get moderate exercise every day.
9. Stay together as a couple. Older married men have a significantly reduced risk of dying early compared with unmarried or divorced men.
10. Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
(Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition and the Blue Zones Project)
Healthy hot spots around the world
There are four spots where people are so fit and happy, they routinely live past 100. They are:
• Sardinia, Italy;
• Okinawa, Japan;
• Loma Linda, Calif.; and
• Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
Canada has its own health hot spots, according to Statistics Canada and the Canadian Health Network.
Other than Richmond, they include:
• Vancouver’s North Shore and the South Fraser Valley, B.C. In both places, residents exercise significantly more than the average Canadian.
• North Vancouver Island. Here, 70 per cent of women are physically active in leisure time compared with just
51 per cent of Canadians in general.
• York, Ont., and North Shore, B.C. People in these two regions live a year longer than the national average.
• Charlottetown, Halifax and St. John’s, Nfld. All three cities boast the highest birth weights and the lowest infant mortality rates. St John’s also has the country’s cleanest air.