Blue Zones: What we can learn
Over the last 20 years, researcher Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to study the people living the longest and healthiest across the globe, called blue zones. They have found that regardless of cultural differences, some common themes emerged to help us understand how centenarians around the world are living and thriving. Luckily for us, we have access to this research, and by making small adjustments over time we too can add quality years on to our lives where we enjoy good health and a happy lifestyle.
The Blue Zones
Research found the following blue zones to have the healthiest and longest living people:
- Barbagia region of Sardinia
- Ikaria, Greece
- Nicoya Peninsula, Cost Rica
- Seventh Day Adventists- the highest concentration in Loma Linda, CA, USA
- Okinawa, Japan
A team was assembled including medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists to find evidence based common denominators in all of these regions. The following 9 were found.
The Blue Zones Power 9: Lifestyle habits of the world’s healthiest and longest living people
- Move naturally
People living in the above-mentioned areas did not work out in the traditional way that our culture does. No one went to the gym, lifted weights, or ran marathons. What they do, was engage in a naturally active lifestyle that nudges them to move as a way of life. For example, they grew gardens, did more tasks by hand versus machine or appliance, and walked and biked as their main mode of transportation. As a result, they are lean, strong, healthy, and living well into their 100’s,
Researchers found that knowing your purpose is worth up to 7 extra years of life expectancy. Okinawans called this “Ikigai” and Nicoyans called it “plan de vida”, both translating to “why I wake up in the morning”. Many of us have seen this play out in our own lives. Oftentimes, older adults report not feeling useful or purposeful in life anymore and we see the downward decline from there. No matter your age or how old you get, finding what lights you up and gets you out of bed in the morning makes the difference of extending life both both quality and quantity of years.
Stress is the hallmark feature of modern life. Most Americans say they experience stress in a way to negatively impacts their lives. Stress leads to chronic inflammation- which is associated with almost every single age-related disease. People who live in the blue zones also experience stress, but their secret to managing it that we can take a lesson from, are daily routines and practices that help them to shed that stress. If you think of stress like a bucket filling with water, it can only fill up so far until it starts to spill out of the top. By engaging in activities that slowly empty that bucket, you are regularly hanging it in a way that it isn’t spilling out into other areas of your life, and then affecting your health and wellbeing. This can be very individual and personal, but the key is to find something that resonates with you that helps lower and offload your overall stress levels. Some of these routines from the various blue zones included daily remembering their ancestors, prayer, taking a nap, and happy hour.
- 80% rule
In our culture supersized everything, huge portions, and more is better, researchers found that each of the blue zones had similarities in how they ate that we can definitely learn from. The first was eating until 80% full. Actually, enjoying your food and no longer being hungry, but comfortably satisfied to a light full, but not overly stuffed. They also eat their biggest meal earlier in the day and their smallest meal at the end of the day- and then that's it. They do not continue to snack and graze for the rest of the evening. Research has also found that metabolically speaking, this is a much better way of eating than the way most Americans eat- coffee for breakfast, whatever for lunch, snacking and grazing through the day, more coffee, huge dinner, more snacking and grazing before bed.
- Plant slant
Each of the blue zones eat a more plant vs meat-based diet. This doesn’t mean they are vegetarian or don’t eat meat at all, it just means that their meals are plant heavy as opposed to meat heavy. They also eat smaller portions of meat as well as pork only a few times per month. Beans were found to be the cornerstone of most centenarian diets.
- Wine at 5
People in the blue zones (with the exception of the seventh day adventists) drink moderately and regularly. Although there is some conflicting research, some have found that people who drink 1-2 glasses of wine per day with food and good company tend to live longer than those who don’t. This does not mean saving all your drinks until the weekend and binge drinking, but rather limiting it to 1-2 per day.
Almost all of the centenarians interviews in the study were involved in a faith based community. There is actually lot of research showing the benefits of belonging to one. It can actually add on an additional 4-14 years of life! Researchers found that the denomination did not matter, but that those who benefitted from this type of community attended religious services at least 4 times per week.
- Loved ones first
People in the blue zones all prioritize family first. Family was the glue that held everything together and it made them better and stronger as a result. Researchers found that aging parents and grandparents were either kept in the home or very close nearby with regular contact and visits from family members. They prioritized marriage, committing to one partner for life, and investing their time and energy into their children and grandchildren. Grandparents that are actively involved in their grandchildren’s lives fare far better than those who are not.
- Right tribe
There is a saying that you are the result of your five closest friends. There is a lot of truth to this because certain lifestyles and attitudes are contagious. Research has shown that things such as obesity, smoking, happiness, and loneliness are contagious. Who you surround yourself with has a huge impact on your habits. Are you supported and encouraged by your inner circle or do they drag you down? Okinawans created “moais” which is a practice of committing to five friends for life that stick together through thick and thin and are their primary support group.
Although genes play a huge role, we learn from the blue zones that certain lifestyle factors have a huge impact on health and longevity. The best place to start is to pick one area at a time and slowly implement changes that will benefit you in the long run. You can also checkout bluezones.com as well as various books written on the subject. Cheers to good health!