9 lessons from the world's Blue Zones on living a long, healthy lifeOct 12, 2021
A long, healthy, thriving life is no accident, right? It’s mainly down to ‘good genes’.
Wrong. A wealth of research has established that how long we live is determined mainly by culture and lifestyle (80%) rather than genetics (just 20%).
In a nutshell, most of how long and how well you live is up to you.
Back in 2004, National Geographic super-explorer Dan Bettner and his team of researchers scoured the globe to uncover the lifestyle habits of the first five ‘blue zones’. These communities are spread across the world – Sardinia, Japan, Costa Rica, California and Greece – and their inhabitants regularly live to be 100 years old with almost no dementia, depression, anxiety and much lower cases of the biggest killing diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Essentially, lots of centenarians still very much enjoying life to the full.
Dan and his team identified nine common denominators of these communities, and his research shows that we too could live another 10 years, as well as look younger and feel younger at every age, by changing our lifestyle in line with the blue zones.
Here are the nine easy habits to build into your daily life, just like the blue zone folk do.
Pull quote: We too could live another 10 years, as well as look younger and feel younger at every age, by changing our lifestyle in line with the blue zones.
1. Move naturally
They don’t exercise specifically ‘for exercise’, they’re not running marathons or doing CrossFit. Instead, they weave movement into their daily lives. Their environments are always nudging them into moving without thinking. They cycle to work, walk to the shops, do the gardening and they do their housework without machinery. They play with their grandchildren, their great grandchildren and, in some instances, their great great grandchildren.
2. Purpose or ‘Ikigai’
They all lead purposeful lives and are clear on that purpose. It might be their job – they’re the village butcher and it’s their job to provide the local community with food – or it might be a role within the family. An age-old Japanese concept ‘Ikigai’ (pronounced ick-ee-guy) translates as ‘a reason for being’, a reason to get up in the morning, a purpose or direction in life. Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. You can figure out what your purpose is by following these steps.
3. Downshift stress
Everyone gets stressed, even in the blue zones. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is linked to every single major age-related disease. What the blue zone folk have are routines that downshift that stress, whether that’s taking a moment’s pause to remember their ancestors like the Okinawans, praying like the Adventists in California, napping like the Ikarians, or even enjoying a happy hour like the Sardinians. Happy days.
4. Eat wisely – 80% of the time
Back in Japan, the Okinawans say a 2500-year old mantra before meals to remind them to stop eating when they’re 80% full: the 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full is a game changer when it comes to gaining or losing weight.
Blue zone folk also eat their smallest meal in late afternoon or early evening and don’t eat any more after that.
5. Plant slant
While they’re not purely vegetarian, their diets are predominantly plant based. Beans, pulses, nuts and wholegrains are the linchpin of most of their diets, while they only eat meat – mostly pork – on average five times a month. And not giant slabs of meat either, think deck-of-cards sized. Sugar and processed foods are out.
6. Wine at Five
Apart from the Adventists in California, people in all the blue zones drink alcohol moderately and regularly, around 1-2 glasses a day with friends and/or with food. BUT you can’t abstain all week and have all 14 glasses on a Saturday – it just doesn’t work like that. Less bingeing, more mindful drinking.
7. A sense of belonging
All except five of the 263 centenarians interviewed as part of the Blue Zone study belong to some sort of faith-based community. In fact, research shows that attending faith-based services four times a month adds 4-14 years onto your life expectancy, while adding just six months is something of a miracle when it comes to medical science invention.
8. Loved ones come first
Families come first for the Blue Zone centenarians. Ageing parents and grandparents are close by or at home, which also helps lower disease and mortality rates of children, too. They generally commit to a life partner, adding up to three years of life, and invest in their children with time and love. In turn, the children tend to look after their parents when the time comes, too.
9. Finding the right tribe
Tight-knit, supportive social circles are important for both sexes. But these circles have to support healthy behaviours to have a positive impact on life expectancy. Okinawans have ‘moais’ – groups of five friends that committed to each other for life – how lovely does that sound? Other research shows that smoking, obesity, happiness and loneliness are contagious. So choose your right tribe, stick to them like glue, and let go of those who aren’t right for you.
While I’m not suggesting major lifestyle overhauls for all, being more mindful of the learnings from the blue zones can help us all lead healthier lives, both physically and mentally.
I work with people and organisations determined to bring their A game to all areas of their world and are ready to create a long, happy and healthy life.
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