In these places, people do headstands, walk large distances in mountainous terrain, take care of their gardens, drive cars, do yoga, herd sheep, fish daily, take care of their farms, and assist with heart surgery. All at the age of 90, or sometimes even over 100 years old.
In his book “The Blue Zones”, Dan Buettner describes the areas in the world where people live the longest and free of disease. So far there have been 5 locations identified as Blue Zones: Okinawa (Japan), Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and Loma Linda (US).
Blue Zones were named by demographers initially collecting data from the Barbagian region in Sardinia. In a previous blog I already mentioned them, and my fascination for the knowledge derived from studying these communities. So much, that I decided to name a category on this blog after them. To me it seems that the key to health and happiness lies in what a lot of these places express. At the same time, there is a connection with everything I find interesting about health, body, mind and behavior. What is most appealing of all however, is that the factors that seem to contribute to longevity, are far from rocket science.
Even tough, these Blue Zones are located thousands of kilometers apart from each other, they have nine distinct features in common:
I played soccer until the age of 18, than I went to the gym 4 to 5 times a week. After, I started rock climbing weekly while doing yoga, hiking and running in between. Nowadays, I have less opportunities to climb, but still I run, go to the gym and do yoga.
What do Blue Zoners do? They just move, they usually do not go to the gym or play tennis. Rather, their physical activity is inherent to their daily lives. They walk during their work, to friends, or to get groceries. Sometimes they cover distances of more than 5 kilometers by foot, just to get to a market. Because of this, they burn up to 5 times as many calories in non-exercise based activity, and seem to live 7-10 years longer than average.
This reminds me of when I started working. My life changed from a medium sedentary (student) lifestyle, to walking, standing and showing exercises to clients all day. The result? I lost 3 kilos of body weight without even being aware of it.
Do you know your purpose? Do you know why you are waking up every morning? What gives you energy, regardless of the amount of effort you have to put in?
It seems that the Blue Zoners know this. It might be fishing, taking care of their loved ones, or training for a sports event. More over, these people are able to tell you what their purpose is. To be able to both live purposefully, and express it, increases life expectancy with 7 years more, than somebody who cannot.
3. Stress management
Concluding my last period of travelling I wrote down a couple of things I wanted to change in my life. One of them was introducing a moment in the day where I would take time to do nothing. It evolved in to 20 minutes of meditation after I wake up. Sometimes I manage to take a moment in the afternoon as well.
During this time there is space to reflect, relax, and breath deeply. The Blue Zoners have their own versions of this. It may be enjoying a happy hour with friends, taking a daily nap in the case of the Ikarians, or taking a moment to remember their ancestors in the case of the Okinawans.
4. Eat plants
Almost a year ago, I changed my diet to be entirely plant-based. I do not find any hardship maintaining it, and feel great and cannot recommend it enough.
However, statistics show that diets don’t work. 90% of the people that start a new diet have quit before the 7 month mark.
Why did my change last? I believe that I was quickly able to adapt this new lifestyle. Blue Zoners eat a largely plant based diet as well. Not because they feel like it is better than eating another diet, it is just inherent to their lifestyle. The majority of their calories come from vegetables, nuts, and legumes. These foods are rich in antioxidants that help reduce the aging process going on in all of us.
5. Alcohol in moderation
I quit alcohol a while ago, every now and then I would have a glass of wine. I would mostly notice it’s effects soon. Usually though, I would feel bad right away.
The Blue Zoners nevertheless, seem to be going well on a glass or two per day. Being it wine or sake. The advantage the Sardinians for exam[ple, have over me, is that their wine is made from the grapes that grow in their own garden. Where what is available to me, is highly industrialized. On the other hand there are the 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda that abstain entirely from alcohol for religious reasons.
6. Eat in moderation
How I love my plates stacked over the top with food. Oats, loaded with fruits, nuts and seeds, or a plate of rices with beans and vegetables so high I cannot see the wall in front
It seems this is not what I should do if I want to make it to a hundred. The so called 80% rule, seems the way to go. Okinawans even have an adage for it (something they say before they start to eat their meal)
hara hachi bu (eat until you are 80% full)
7. Put your loved ones first
Here I am, for a couple of years already at least a 1000km away from my family and best friends. If that wasn’t enough, there is now over 14000km between us. This does not mean however, that I do not feel connected to them. Nevertheless, Blue Zoners tend to this subject a little different.
They usually live in communities with most of their family around, and take care of each other, regardless of the physical condition. Nursing homes, senior center, and assisted living facilities, hold little meaning in their societies.
8. Stay connected
Are you running from home, to the bus, to work, and back again. Day in day out only with the occasional stop at the supermarket, a restaurant, or a sports club?
It looks like there are more efficient ways to getting old and avoiding disease. Staying connected both physically and spiritually seems to do great things. The Blue Zoners are generally part of a faith-based community. People who take this seriously and engage 4 times a month, seem to live between 4 and 14 years longer.
9. Surround yourself with the right people
I have been lucky to have been supported by my friends and family in countless ways. Most of that I only realized after it happened. The fact they did however, allowed me to stay strong when it came to making lifestyle changes, or pursuing my dreams.
Longevity seems to be better achievable as well, when you are not alone. Surrounding yourself with people that engage in similar behavior makes it easier for you to do the same. At the same time, securing strong relationships in times of hardship.
You can tie any of these factors to longevity and build an interesting story around each one. That’s what the $20 billion diet industry and $21 billion health club industry do in their effort to convince us that if we take the right pill, eat the right food, or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight, and live longer. But these strategies don’t work.
…The big aha for me is how the agents of longevity reinforce each other for the long therm.
What I find most fascinating about the knowledge derived from these Blue Zones, is that none of the people living there were trying to implement them in to their life. They usually had, or were still living hard lives. They do not necessarily have access to vitamin pills, gyms, and nutrition coaches. Rather, they are just living according to the opportunities and limitations of their environment.
However, in our work hard, play hard society nowadays there seems little space for moderation, enjoying the moment, and being with loved ones. Nevertheless, these things all seem to be key in living long and healthy.
Now if you, like me, and most of the people live in cities, where the air quality is bad, where there are always cars racing around you, where the greenest thing is the plant in your windowsill, and the sky counts 3 stars because there is so much light pollution. What do you do?
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Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (p. 293). National Geographic Society.