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Lessons for Living Longer

People who live in the world’s Blue Zones are living longer. What are they doing to increase longevity?

Physical activity and health for living longer

Modern lifestyles—including sedentary behavior and poor eating habits—are a breeding ground for chronic illness. That makes it harder for people in the U.S. to live long and prosper.  Yet, there are regions around the globe where pockets of people do appear to be living longer and healthier lives. 

In these so-called Blue Zones, residents statistically live the longest and produce people ages 90 and above at seemingly extraordinary rates. The specific areas are Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventist religious community in Loma Linda, California (USA) (Buettner 2008).

Their patterns of behavior were chronicled by explorer Dan Buettner and a team of anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists. Buettner describes these patterns in The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (Buettner 2008)

Here Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, James Beard Award–winning journalist, Canada-based dietitian, freelance nutrition writer and recipe developer, summarizes some of the most important patterns and offers suggestions for how you can create your own Blue Zone. 

1. Plant-Based Diets Predominate

Diet is an entrance ramp to better health. The average tofu-laced menu in Okinawa may differ from what’s on offer in a Costa Rican village, where beans and rice dominate, but Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN, a senior medical writer and epidemiologist with Cambia Health Solutions in Portland, Oregon, says a parallel among Blue Zones is that diets are predominantly plant-based.

What You Can Do: Focus on minimally processed plants, including vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains. Look for ways to add more plants, and slice out some of the meat. 

2. Physical Activity Fills the Day

Physical activity in all Blue Zone areas involves a consistent flow of natural movements, including those involved in gardening, pounding corn by hand to make tortillas, practicing tai chi daily and shepherding livestock in the hills. 

What You Can Do: Get up and move—often! Beyond going hard at the gym, engineer more movement in daily life. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, go for a stroll while talking on the phone, embrace an active hobby (like gardening or bird-watching) and set a timer to signal movement breaks after sitting for more than an hour. 

3. Purpose Defines a Long Life

Nicoyans call it plan de vida, and Okinawnas refer to it as ikigai, both of which essentially translate to “a reason to live.” Elders who begin each day with a sense of purpose and fulfillment, while recognizing how they contribute to their communities, seem to live long lives or, at the very least, feel positive, upbeat and happy. 

What You Can Do: Find and cling to your purpose. A sense of usefulness can come from something as simple as immersing yourself in a hobby or actively volunteering time to worthy causes. Crafting a personal mission statement can guide the way to living longer.

Social Circles Reinforce Health

Buettner and other researchers have identified social interactions as a major player in Blue Zone longevity (Buettner 2008). The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda live in tightknit communities, while Okinawans have their moai, a social circle meant to provide support during life stressors and reinforce shared healthy behaviors. These communities focus on face-to-face time and not Facebook likes.

What You Can Do: Create an environment that encourages daily socializing with family and friends. Schedule weekly get-togethers with friends, volunteer for a cause that forces interaction with others or join a sports league that involves group play. And find ways to enjoy more of your meals in good company.

See also: Health Lessons From the World’s Blue Zones



Principles for a Living Longer

Here are some simple descriptions of how people in the Blue Zones live their lives (and increase their longevity). 

  1. Plant-based diets predominate.
  2. Most calories are eaten early in the day.
  3. Mindful, slower eating defines meals.
  4. Physical activity fills the day.
  5. Sleep nourishes lifestyles.
  6. Purpose defines a long life.
  7. Nature nurtures active lifestyles
  8. People connect in person
  9. Social circles reinforce health.

References

Buettner, D. 2008. The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Des Moines, IA: National Geographic.

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