Blue Zones: How To Live Healthier Longer

how to live healthier

Have you heard of blue zones? If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes in my company, the answer is probably yes. I’m kind of obsessed with them. If you haven’t, or if you tuned me out (it’s cool, I get it, whatever), here it is in a nutshell:

Blue zones as a concept got their start when demographic Researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identified Sardinia, Italy as home to the world’s highest concentration of men living over 100. They circled the area in blue and began calling it the “blue zone.” From there, bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Beutner picked up the torch and identified other areas of the world where people live the healthiest, the longest. These are:

  • The Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • The Seventh Day Adventist Community in Loma Linda California (these guys live 10 years longer than their neighbors!)
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

These are very different areas and cultures, but Beutner, National Geographic and their team of medical researchers, epidemiologists, demographers, and anthropologists have identified the dietary and lifestyle practices they all have in common. The idea? If we replicate them, we can learn how to live healthier, longer.

I am very interested in this. Why? Because, on the whole, my American culture is not doing great. Preventable diseases have been skyrocketing for decades and I have grown tired of watching people I know and love suffering; losing limbs to Type 2 Diabetes, losing mental function to Alzheimers, losing life to America’s cocktail of preventable diseases.  

We can all agree this is horrible. And, hey, to a certain extent, that’s life. People get sick. It happens. But 40-60% of deaths from the USA’s five leading causes are preventable; aka completely avoidable. Yet, we lose people anyway – and many who manage to survive aren’t really living, just suffering.

Now, we could talk about why our culture became one of the unhealthiest developed nations on the planet. We could talk about capitalism and profit over welfare. We could talk about the myth of individual choice. But those things are all massive bummers. And, really, they aren’t going to change anytime soon. Instead, I want to talk about what the blue zones revealed, which is how to live healthier, longer. That message is much more inspiring and, fortunately, actionable.

So, without further ado, here are the nine things blue zones share in common:

 1. Natural Movement

People in the world’s blue zones move all the time. To reiterate, they are constantly moving. In American culture, it’s common to spend long periods of time sitting at a desk, in the car, or on the couch. Sitting is bad for you – and Americans do it a lot.

Blue zones cultures don’t join a gym, lift weights or run marathons. They simply live in environments that require constant movement; no machines for yardwork or housework; growing gardens instead of ordering groceries online; and walking everywhere.

Seriously – everywhere – and often up and down hills and stairs. Not for the sake of exercise, just to get where they need to go. Physical movement is woven into every aspect of daily life.

Fun fact: centenarian Okinawans work and eat their meals sitting on the floor. This means they get up and down off the floor dozens of times throughout the day. Constant movement.

2. Live with Purpose

Everyone needs a reason to live. The exact reasons vary but all blue zones cultures have them. In the Nicoyan Peninsula, it’s called “Plan de Vida” and in Okinawa it’s called “Ikigai.” Whatever name you use, having a life purpose is estimated to add an additional seven years of life expectancy.

3. De-stress

Stress happens everywhere. Basically, if you’re human, you’re going to encounter stress, and when you do, if not handled well, it will cause chronic inflammation, a nasty condition that is connected to pretty much every age-related major disease.

Just thinking about that is stressful.

Fortuantely, it’s not so much the stress that’s toxic, as not knowing how to properly release it. (Side note: If you’re looking for a really extraordinary book about how to release stress, I’d recommend Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. It’s brilliant.)

Blue zones cultures have stress-shedding practices built into their daily lives and overall culture. These are different everywhere, but they all accomplish the same end: ditching stress. The Okinawans take time to remember and honor their ancestors. Adventists pray. Sardinians have happy hour. And Ikarians nap. All leave stress in the dust.

4. Eat 80%

Blue zones cultures don’t gorge themselves. They eat until they’re 80% full; not 100%. In Okinawa, this is reiterated in a Confucian mantra, “Hara hachi bu.” Blue zones cultures also eat their biggest meal early in the day, with only a small meal in the early evening or late afternoon. Afterward they stop eating until the next day.

5. Plant-Based

What do all blue zones diets have in common? They eat plants, lots of them. They also eat lots of beans; black beans, soy beans, lentils and fava beans, for example. They eat very little meat, only about five times a month in 3-4 ounce servings (just the size of a card deck). Lastly, their diets don’t include modern processed foods (chips, candy, soda, etc.) and are instead made up whole foods, mostly vegetables, with plenty of dark leafy greens. And they know meals are best when shared with friends and family.

6. Enjoy a Glass

People from blue zones cultures (with the noted exception of Adventists) drink alcohol in small amounts, regularly. They drink about a glass a day with family or friends, and often with food. They’re not drinking hard liquor, mind you, but wine.

Sardinian Cannonau wine has two or three times the level of flavonoids, which are known to clean arteries. Surprisingly for me, in these cultures, people who drink wine regularly and in small amounts tend to outlive their non-drinking peers.

7. Have Faith

Blue zones researchers interviewed 263 centenarians throughout the course of their research. All but five of them belonged to a faith-based community. The type of faith varied but regularly attending religious services four times per month increased life expectancy by 4-14 years.

8. Family First

Blue zones cultures are always family-first. Aging parents live near or with their children, which increases their lifespan, purpose and lowers children and grandchildren’s disease and mortality rates as well. They commit to a marriage/life partner and spend a lot of time investing in children with love.

9. Tribe

Did you know that obesity, smoking, loneliness and even happiness are contagious? Blue zones centenarians choose (or were born into) families and social circles that support healthy behaviors. In short, who you spend your time with influences the decisions you make – for better or worse. In Okinawa, they take this to another level with the formation of “moais.” These are groups of five friends who commit to one another for life, and support one another’s social, financial, health and spiritual wellbeing along the way.

Changing what you eat and how you live changes your life. It can even reverse diseases. Not convinced? In 1982 (the year I was born, as fate would have it), a group of Aborigines who were suffering from type 2 diabetes and a variety of other western ailments, elected to revert back to their traditional lifestyle. After only seven weeks of hunter-gatherer living, the diseases were reversed, along with the group’s risk factors for heart attack and cardiovascular disease. These people were dying from preventable diseases and all it took to reverse them was to revert to a traditional way of life. It healed their disease.

How impactful is that?

You may wonder, don’t my genes determine my health? As it turns out, not really. Genetic factors aren’t the major cause behind chronic diseases. Your diet and lifestyle have significantly more impact. Basically, it’s not what you got, it’s what you do with it.

The tricky part is that in our culture, eating and living for health requires a great deal of effort. Junk food is everywhere – and it’s cheap and easy. Pushing back is an uphill battle (very David and Goliath). But it’s one worth fighting, which is why I’m such a blue zones fan.

We don’t need a new fad diet; we already know what works – and blue zones cultures have been doing it for a very long time. 

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