Dan Buettner is a National Geographic explorer and author. Nearly twenty years ago, he formed a team of medical and cultural experts who scoured the world to find the secret to living longer. His team learned the intricacies of the unique lives centenarians (or people who have lived to be at least 100 years old) live. Two books and an entire lifestyle movement later, the world is still learning from the Blue Zones.
What are the Blue Zones?
Buettner’s team discovered that there are five small places on Earth where it is common for people to live much longer than elsewhere. Those five places are Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy, Ikaria, Greece, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California. In Okinawa, nearly seven times more people live into their hundreds than in America. Although there are a few common trends, people in each of the Blue Zones lead lives that are extremely unique to their regions. People in one Blue Zone drink at least a glass of wine a day while alcohol is avoided in another Blue Zone. In some Blue Zones, eating meat is seen as being essential to health while meat is consumed sparingly in other Blue Zones. Despite their differences, there are several lifestyle lessons to learn from the five Blue Zones.
While the media often focuses on what a person who has lived a long time eats, there are other factors that can be contributed to the unusual longevity in these unique areas. Nevertheless, something can be said for the unique diets found in the Blue Zones. In Ikaria and Sardinia, people eat a traditional Mediterranean diet, and the regional diet of both regions is heavy in goat milk and legumes.
Whole grains are common dietary stapled in all five of the Blue Zones. Whole grains are consumed through brown rice in Okinawa and whole wheat bread in Loma Linda. Fruit and vegetables form the backbone of all Blue Zone diets. While some Blue Zone diets also feature a healthy portion of meats (especially fish,) they are all relatively plant based in the sense that local vegetables form the core of the diet.
What are the common takeaways?
When comparing diets, there are still key differences between the five Blue Zones. What makes them similar? What are the keys to longevity that people around the world should be implementing? Dan Buettner has narrowed down the cultural, health, and lifestyle similarities that make the five Blue Zones different from the rest of the world into a lifestyle called Power 9. Here are three of them:
In all five of the Blue Zones, exercise as we often think of it is not common. People on the Nicoya Peninsula don’t go to gyms, but they do move way more than the average person. In both their work and home life, people in all of the Blue Zones are constantly moving, bending, and lifting. Whether it’s caring for a flock of sheep, walking to the market to buy food, taking care of a garden, or fishing for dinner, people in the Blue Zones get vigorous exercise through very natural means. In these cultures, movement is not some extra activity that must be planned for. Movement is a part of the lifestyle, and any able-bodied person is going to keep moving throughout their life.
Scientists have long proven that exercise can improve longevity, and people in all the Blue Zones get exercise in a way that is completely accessible for anyone in the world.
Walk at least a mile every day. Plant your own garden. Cut your own grass. Ride a bike to work or school. Do plenty of work around your house, and, where reasonable, do things yourself rather than using automatic appliances that speed things up. Keep your body in motion! If you spend long hours in school or working at a desk, it can be easy to develop a sedentary lifestyle. Combat this by getting a standing desk or using an exercise ball for a chair. If neither solution is viable for you, compensate for all the time you spend sitting during the day, by leading a very active life during the evenings and weekends.
Although the purposes are all very different, there is a cultural sense of purpose in all of the Blue Zones. Children don’t grow up and wonder what they are going to be. They know their role in society, and they are raised from childhood to believe that there is a great honor in having said role. People in Ikaria are almost all shepherds. They are experts at their trade, and they are proud of their work.
Familial roles are clearly defined in all of the Blue Zone. While each member of the family may have a different role, every member does something throughout the day to work towards the overall good of the family. In Okinawa, grandparents even have a role in the traditional network of a family, so everyone has a sense of belonging and being needed.
The Blue Zone in Loma Linda is due to the strict adherence to health standards by the large cluster of members of the Seventh Day Adventist faith. As a part of their faith, members play a large role in volunteering and community outreach. This gives them a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment.
On the Nicoya Peninsula, it’s important that everyone has a “plan de vida” or life plan. This includes the many elderly residents who live well into their hundreds. For them, life doesn’t stop until they are dead. People in this area of Costa Rica continue to maintain strong social and familial ties until they are physically incapable of doing so.
Although people in Blue Zones lead extremely active lives, activities that relieve stress are viewed as normal and necessary in all of these places. Like the Spanish siesta, the shepherding communities of Ikaria take a nap during the day. Prayer is a sacred part of the lives of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, and they observe the Sabbath (a weekly day of rest for religious reasons) every Sunday.
In mornings on Okinawa, people take a few moments to think about their ancestors. In Sardinia, where drinking antioxidant-rich local wine helps people live longer, there is a regionally observed happy hour where everyone takes a moment to rest with a nice glass of wine.
Take time to care for your mental and physical stress. Business is glorified, but following a stressful schedule leads to a host of health problems. Everyone needs a scheduled time each day where they take a moment to relax and reflect. Find an activity or a place that helps you to completely relax and to take our weekly time to do that thing. It might be going to the beach every Sunday or taking a yoga class. Find what relieves your stress and do it religiously, even when you don’t feel stressed.