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What We Can Learn From the ‘Blue Zones’

Editor
To live to be over 100, some say, just live as these people do

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: The Quest for Longevity (and What Food Has to Do With It) for more.

The concept of Blue Zones — inspired by studies, over a decade ago, by demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain and their colleagues and later popularized by writer Dan Buettner — highlights five specific areas of the world where people somehow tend to outlive the rest of us. These regions’ inhabitants remain active as they age far beyond the average.

The term “Blue Zones” has been trademarked by Blue Zones LLC, a Minneapolis-based wellness program, and the zones are fairly well known. These areas are nowhere near each other. The five Blue Zones include a group of sparsely populated mountain villages in Sardinia, the island of Ikaria in Greece, Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, the Seventh-day Adventists community of Loma Linda, California (about 55 miles due east of Los Angeles), and the Okinawa Prefecture in southern Japan

Clearly, it's not proximity or ethnic identity that’s doing the trick of helping these people live longer.

These populations are flaunted in health magazines as possessing the coveted solution to avoiding disease, studied by nutritionists as the mysterious epitome of health, and written about by experts around the globe. From the way they’re described on paper, you’d think these long-lived people were a mythical species — that they had special rituals, ate certain foods, and held with ancient traditions.

Luckily for the rest of us, this depiction is largely the result of media hype. In truth, the people in the Blue Zones are just that: people.

This means there is a possibility we can be just like them.

Of course, there is no promise that if you make the lifestyle changes to live more like they do, you’ll automatically live to be 100. In fact, there are numerous differences in the lifestyles of these populations. The Sardinians drink high-polyphenol wine and eat a lot of meat, while the Seventh-day Adventists practice sobriety and are often vegan. But based on the centuries-long anecdotal history of these five regions’ longevity, there is a likelihood that adopting some of their practices can increase your chances.

What can we all learn from the residents of the Blue Zones? Here are a few secrets of their success at living long, and a few recommendations for simple steps towards making your own life Blue Zone-friendly — without moving to Sardinia.

They don’t stress so much
Of course, experiencing stress is unavoidable. However, once you encounter some tension, there are different ways you can deal with it. The Blue Zone communities don’t let their stress simmer; instead, they have routines and best practices for ridding themselves of stress before it becomes toxic.

The Seventh-day Adventists, for instance, pray when they are overwhelmed. The Ikarians are known for their naps. Sardinians head to the caffè and indulge in a wine-fueled happy hour. All of these stress relief practices are different; the point is that Blue Zoners have a plan for when they start to feel tense.

What you can do: Cultivate a stress relief practice that works for you.

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They move more often, but take it easy
Blue Zone inhabitants don’t have six-pack abs and they don't do burpees. Instead, they exercise in a way that feels natural and balanced. In a culture where movement is par for the course, spin classes and weightlifting naturally take a back seat to more health-supportive forms of exercise. Some cultures dance, while others simply walk everywhere or cultivate a labor-intensive garden.

What you can do: Ditch the HIIT class and go for a walk instead. Going for a bike ride or a stroll or simply going out dancing with friends are much calmer, less fraught ways to stay active.

They all eat different foods
That’s right: There is no be-all, end-all dietary solution. In the Blue Zone in Greece, residents eat a lot of potatoes, honey, and lentils. In Japan, they eat large volumes of melons, rice, and garlic. There is no need to bore you with the rest of the lists of foods these societies eat, but it is important to note that they are all different.

That doesn't mean that just eating rice or just eating lentils is the answer to lasting health. Instead, what these cultures all do have in common is that they eat together and they eat a large proportion of plants. They don’t worry about the specifics of what is in their foods, and they don’t cut out food groups they don’t think are healthy.

What you can do: Quit strict dieting and calorie counting and eat a variety of foods. These cultures are a testament to the fact that all kinds of foods are part of a healthy diet.

variety of food
Brooke Lark / Unsplash

 Eat together and eat a large proportion of plants.

They spend time with loved ones
They take family time very seriously. Parents in Blue Zones invest the most in their children and spend the most time at home. In some Blue Zone communities, grandparents and parents live with their children throughout their lives. Basically, for Blue Zone residents there is no doubt whether or not family is important — to them, family is everything.

What you can do: Schedule time for the people you care about. Whether it’s a weekly phone call to your mom, a night in with the family, or an outing with a grandparent, make sure you’re taking at least a little time to show your loved ones you care.

They are intensely spiritual people
These people give a whole new meaning to the idea of “praying for your life.” All five communities of the Blue Zones have strong religious practices. When interviewed, there wasn’t a single Blue Zoner who didn’t claim to belong to a faith-based community.

What you can do: It doesn’t have to be anything crazy, but consider incorporating spirituality into your life. The type of spirituality doesn’t matter as much as the amount of comfort you derive from it.

They have a strong community
In addition to spending time with family, people in the Blue Zones also keep a tight social circle of people who support them in healthy and wholesome ways. Some cultures have accountability groups for their goals and others get together for a drink every day.

What you can do: Do an acquaintance detox. Assess the people you’re spending the most time with and whether they’re truly supporting you. Then make some changes accordingly. Your vibe is your tribe.

All in all, these tips can help you lead a wholesome and well-rounded lifestyle that brings you more happiness and balance. However, be wary: Doing these things is no guarantee that you will outlive Grandma. As wellness expert Dr. Jeffrey Levine warns, “There is no doubt that exercise, proper dietary choices, and staying connected with family and community can lead to longer and healthier lives. But the reality is that most Americans who live beyond age 85 will die after a period of mental or physical disability, and half of those will spend time in a nursing home.” Looking to the Blue Zones for a silver-bullet solution may lead people to the false belief that disease and old age are avoidable.

So, while it can’t hurt to live a little healthier, remember not to fall for the false promises made by hucksters, charlatans, and well-meaning but misguided health enthusiasts.

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