You’ve heard of heart rate zones, no-parking zones, and maybe even the Danger Zone… but have you ever heard of blue zones?
“Blue zones” are areas of the world where people live the longest lifespans - often nearing or even reaching 100 years of age. Even more intriguing, these zones can be found all around the globe, in vastly different environments and countries. And yet these blue zones all have a few things in common: they live simply, value community, stay active all day, and keep stress at bay.
There are a total of 5 Blue Zones in the world, with one in the United States (Loma Linda, CA). Dan Buettner (former National Geographic photographer) identified these areas after his years of travel, and then authored a book called The Blue Zones Solution. Here are the lessons we can learn from these blue zone centenarians, plus ways you can incorporate these learnings into your own lifestyle.
Surprisingly, the world’s longest-living people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or even belong to gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving – without even realizing it. Their cultures tend to be devoid of mechanical conveniences for transportation (like cars) or house and yard work. They also spend most of their time outside, and they feel connected to nature.
Try it yourself: Integrate outdoor movement into your daily life by completing errands on foot or bicycle.
Many blue zones do not have a word for retirement. They focus on purpose rather than productivity. For the Okinawans, it’s called “ikigai,” and for the Nicoyans, it’s called “plan de vida”; to us, that would translate to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose can add up to seven years to your lifespan.
Try it yourself: Spend a few moments reflecting on your inner purpose and journaling about it. What does it look like to have a purpose? What are a few things that might give you purpose?
Stress leads to chronic inflammation, and it’s associated with every major, age-related disease. But even people in the blue zones have stress – so what’s their secret? They have stress-busting daily habits, like remembering loved ones, praying, keeping a gratitude journal, taking a nap, and enjoying happy hour (seriously).
Try it yourself: Much of our stress comes from our attachment to technology. Today, put your phone in a drawer, and then leave the room for 30 minutes to pursue an activity you enjoy.
Centenarians in blue zones only eat until they’re 80% full. They also front-load their meals: the first meal of the day is the largest, lunch is smaller, and dinner is the smallest of all. That way, they’re able to fully digest their food before bed. They’re also more in-tune with their hunger and satiety cues.
Try it yourself: Practice mindful eating. After each bite, take note of your feelings of fullness. Ask yourself, “Am I eating this just to finish it, or am I still hungry?” If you’re not sure, try walking away from your plate for 20 minutes and then deciding whether you want to eat more.
Blue zones follow mostly plant-based diets. Instead of meat, they eat lentils, fava beans, black beans, white beans, and kidney beans. Meat is saved for only a few occasions each month, in a modest 3-4 ounce serving. In lieu of meat, blue zones eat about 75%-95% plant-based, focusing on whole foods rather than processed foods.
Try it yourself: Commit to trying “Meatless Mondays” for one month. Take note of how you feel: how are your energy levels? What new protein sources were surprisingly tasty? How’s your digestion?
The moderate use of alcohol in blue zones has been described as being possibly beneficial for longevity. If you are choosing to use alcohol we recommend moderate use with some caveats. To be clear, alcohol is a toxin, and it can have serious effects on your sleep and other health issues. Here’s how the blue zone centenarians enjoy alcohol: in moderation (just one or two glasses a day), with friends, and with food.
Try it yourself: Try discontinuing or limiting your own alcohol consumption for the next two weeks. How do you feel? Do you enjoy a favorite drink more when it’s enhanced by loved ones and delicious food?
The world’s longest-living people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviors, which might even be thought of as contagious. In fact, research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. With that in mind, we can see that the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
Try it yourself: Think about the friend whose habits you most admire, and set up a time to see them for lunch, a workout, or just to catch up. Note how you feel during and after your time with them.
Nearly all of the blue zone centenarians that Buettner interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Research shows that attending faith-based services (regardless of denomination) four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy. That’s probably because of the inherent properties of faith-based communities: community, hope, purpose, gratitude, and a mindfulness practice
Try it yourself: If you already belong to a faith-based community, attend a service or group activity. If you don’t currently belong to a faith-based community, ask a friend if you can accompany them to theirs, or spend 30 minutes researching what you’d like to experience and feel in your own ideal community.
Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home and enjoying the benefits of multigenerational living. Besides fostering emotional connection, having elder family members in the household also lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home. Blue zone centenarians also commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love. In return, their children are more likely to care for them when the time comes.
Try it yourself: Reach out to a family member and schedule some one-on-one quality time.
While the blue zone practices are wonderful for general advice, it’s helpful to be even more specific when contemplating how to apply these practices to your daily life. A precision medicine expert can do just that: analyze your labs, your medical history, your genomics, and your day-to-day life, and then offer personalized, actionable ways to apply the principles of blue zone living and increase your longevity and vitality.