How do people in the Blue Zones live so long and what changes you can make in your life to help you live longer?
In this post I will go over what I believe are the 8 best tips from the book, The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner, and published by National Geographic.
So read on and perhaps you will find the answers to some of your questions. And maybe it will encourage you to read the book for more information. I highly recommend it!
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Getting into the zone
I recently read The Blue Zone, which was super fascinating to me because “Blue Zones” are places where there are an extraordinary number of centenarians; that is, people living to be over 100 years old! I myself have at least two, possibly three great-grandparents who lived to be over 100.
Does this mean that I might live to be over 100? Are there tangibles ways I could help increase my life span, even if I don’t make it to 100? I was curious to find out.
I also recently turned 50 years old, so the topics of aging and living longer have really been on my mind.
I have definitely been noticing a lot of changes in my physical appearance, as well as bodily functions, such as going into peri-menopause. In case you don’t know, that is the beginning of menopause when periods are less frequent but haven’t stopped altogether. I’m seeing more fine lines, less elasticity in my skin, more silver hairs, my vision isn’t as sharp, and my memory definitely ain’t what it used to be!
Despite that, most people never guess that I am 50! They are usually pretty shocked when I tell them. I don’t hide it – I’m proud of it! – and usually say that they thought I was in my 30s!
I must say that I really do try to stay healthy (if you’ve been following me on my blog or social media you know that’s my thing!). I follow a plant-based diet, exercise regularly (usually yoga and lots of walking). My job as an archaeologist keeps me active and outdoors most of the time. I don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol, I drink lots of water, and I try to get 8 hours of sleep every night (note, I did say try!).
Fortunately for me, it turns out that these are all some of the top things that centenarians in the Blue Zone do that help them live longer! There are some other factors in there that I am now trying to cultivate more of in my life, which I will talk about in my 8 Best Tips from The Blue Zone. So keep reading if you too want to find out how you can possibly add at least a few more years to your life.
It’s never too late (or too early!) to start!
Here’s a list of what I think are the 8 best tips for living longer from The Blue Zones.
- · Get some moderate exercise daily.
- · Eat a mostly (or all) plant-based diet
- · Practice moderation in eating
- · Minimize stress
- · Find a sense of purpose
- · Spend time with friends and loved ones
- · Be part of a community
- · Hang out with like-minded people
Read on to learn more….
Tip #1: Get some moderate exercise daily.
One of the things that the Blue Zone centenarians all had in common was that they engaged in some sort of moderate daily exercise. Two of the most consistently reported activities were walking and gardening. Nearly all of these folks walked daily, either as part of their regular work routine (yes, many of them worked well into their 90s!), or as part of a social activity, either walking with friends or family, or walking to a friend’s or family member’s house to visit. Also, in places like Costa Rica, some people walked as far as 5 miles each way to buy groceries once a week!
Amazing! How many people do you know that even walk to the store at all, much less a total of 10 miles to buy their food for the week?!
Now, keep in mind that you don’t have to walk 5 miles to the grocery store to get your exercise Remember that moderate and consistent exercise is the key!
Gardening can help you live longer!
Nearly all of these people also maintained a garden where they grew the bulk of their own fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs. Not only did this provide them with moderate exercise and a healthy dose of sunshine (and some oh-so important vitamin D), but also plenty of nutrient-rich produce. Fresh is best!
But maybe you’re not big on walking or gardening…
The important thing is that you have to find the type of exercise that you enjoy and that you can do on a consistent basis. You don’t have to go to a gym or start some crazy exercise program. Just find some activities that will keep you moving regularly. This could be yoga (or general stretching), golf, bowling, bicycling, dancing in your living room, whatever! Just get yourself moving and have fun doing it!
Personally, I love to walk and hike. Fortunately, my job as an archaeologist involves a lot of both, but even on my days off, or after a day in the office, I like to take long (or short) walks with my dog. My family often joins me on hikes around beautiful, local spots. Also when I am in the office, I often go for a brisk walk on my 10 minute breaks.
Yoga is another activity I really enjoy and I have cultivated a daily morning routine. I do yoga every morning as soon as I wake up. It helps me stretch my muscles, gets my blood flowing, and helps me prepare my mind and body for the day ahead. It has been life-transforming!
And it just so happens that I also love gardening! I just love being outdoors and watching things grow. It is also so satisfying to get your weekly produce fresh from your own yard and it is so much more healthy and delicious when it is just-picked. You can pick it when needed so that it is always fresh, and you know exactly what was used (or more importantly not used) to grow it. No contamination worries here!
That leads us into the next tip…
Tip #2: Eat a mostly (or all) plant-based diet
One of the things I found to be most fascinating is that the Blue Zone folks eat very little or no meat. I think most of us have heard by now that too much meat consumption can be bad for your heart, your arteries, your weight, your digestion, etc… Meat usually contains a lot of fat and cholesterol (the bad kind), which can clog arteries, disrupt your digestion, cause weight gain, and generally places a lot of stress on your body.
Not to mention the antibiotics and hormones used in meat production that end up in your body! This is certainly not an ideal situation if you want to live longer!
The Loma Linda community is a Blue Zone community made up of Seventh Day Adventists, who believe it is their sacred duty to take care of their bodies, and they do this by eschewing meat of any kind, and often dairy products too!
In other places such as Okinawa, the Blue Zone is in a very rural area where people live a very modest and traditional lifestyle. They grow much of their own food, including many herbs that have been shown to boost the immune system and fight cancer. They also eat a very simple diet including tofu, vegetables, miso, and rice. They only eat meat about once a year when the family/community pig is slaughtered for the holidays. It is the same in many of the other Blue Zone communities, where they may slaughter a cow or goat once a year for the whole community to share.
The community that ate the most meat was in Nicoya, Costa Rica, which was primarily chicken that they raised themselves. The rest of their diet consisted of beans and either corn or rice at every meal. This was supplemented with a few vegetables from their gardens and lots of local fruits, some of which I’ve never heard of, but apparently contain lots of vitamin C!
Do you have to be vegan or vegetarian?
I myself am vegan, but I realize that a vegan or vegetarian diet is not for everyone. The point is to make sure that you are getting plenty of veggies and fruits in your diet, and keep the meat to a minimum. Additionally, if you must consume meat, try to make sure it is the highest quality you can afford. Look for organically grown and/or free-range. Get to know your local ranchers who can tell you exactly how their meat is raised.
If you want to try some recipes that incorporate more veggies, I’ve got several on my blog. Try this delicious Vegan Sweet Potato Chickpea Curry with a side of rice or quinoa for a healthy and satisfying meal that the whole family will enjoy!
Tip #3: Practice moderation in eating
If you eat a plant-based diet and restrict your meat intake, you will naturally eat fewer calories without necessarily “going on a diet” and it will help you live longer too! None of the centenarians report ever having been “on a diet”, they just naturally eat healthy. But in some cases, such as in the Okinawan Blue Zone, they do practice a form of calorie restriction. The Okinawans have a Confucian-inspired saying, “hara hachi bu”, which basically means to stop eating before you are completely full.
Okinawan Blue Zoners eat until they are about 80% full. This doesn’t mean that they are going hungry. They and the other Blue Zone groups average about 1900-2000 calories a day, which is quite sufficient for most people. If you are eating lots of veggies and whole grains instead of fatty meats and sodium and fat-laden food products, you will achieve this number with ease. If you are overweight, you are likely to see some excess weight drop off too!
Tip #4: Minimize stress
Minimizing stress is one of the best things we can do to help us live longer. I am sure you have all heard about the dangers of stress in our lives. Not only does stress create physical consequences such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and mental instability, but it can often cause us to act in irrational ways because we cannot think as clearly when we are under stress.
Furthermore, stress creates inflammation in the body that has been shown to promote age-related diseases. These include Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among others.
Centenarians in the Blue Zones tend to live slower, more stress-free lives. They take the time to “stop and smell the roses”, so to speak. They spend time socializing with friends and family, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Seventh-Day Adventists rest on the weekly Sabbath, which gives them a break from their everyday lives and allows them to reconnect with family and friends. Time is often spent at events with their religious community, playing games, sharing meals, or doing activities together such as hiking.
Many of our lives are so busy these days, it can be difficult to make the time to slow down. But it is something so important to a healthy life that we really need to schedule it into our calendars, just like you would with a meeting or other work-related event.
Also, taking up a practice of regular exercise or a hobby can be a really great stress reliever.
Tip #5: Find a sense of purpose
The Blue Zone data, as well as other studies, suggest that one of the secrets to living longer and having a happier life is to find one or more activities that give you a sense of purpose – a reason to get up in the morning. This concept is so important in the lives of so many people in the Blue Zones that they actually have a term for it. Okinawans call it ikigai, while Nicoyans (the Costa Rican Blue Zoners) call it plan de vida.
Buettner states, “A sense of purpose may come from something as simple as seeing that children or grandchildren grow up well. Purpose can come from a job or a hobby, especially if you can immerse yourself completely in it” (Buettner, pg. 246).
Do you have a hobby, or perhaps a job that you love to do? Something that makes you feel completely at ease and “in the zone” when you are doing it?
Maybe working in the garden, walking, or some other form of exercise is your thing, which makes the #1 tip of getting regular exercise doubly as good.
Learn something new
Learning something new such as a musical instrument, a foreign language, or a new computer program can keep your brain sharp, and create both a goal and a sense of purpose. Volunteering at an organization you really care about is also a way to cultivate purpose in your life.
The important thing is to find something that you love to do, and do it consistently. Find your ikigai.
Maybe you just love spending time with your family, making sure they are taken care of, sharing plenty of love, and creating cherished memories. All of that can create a strong sense of purpose too, and plays a dual role in the next tip.
Tip #6: Spend time with friends and loved ones
It goes without saying that spending time with loved ones is an important aspect of life. So it’s no surprise that this is one of the keys to living longer. Life for folks in the Blue Zones is characterized by close family ties, often with multiple generations living in the same house or close by.
Unfortunately, most of us live a lifestyle that can take us far from our families once we graduate from high school. We go off to college or to find a job and start families of our own, far from our own parents and relatives. Even if we live in the same city, we may live miles away from our parents or grandparents and don’t always have time to make the drive to visit.
We simply don’t all live in small, close-knit communities that many Blue-Zones enjoy and that our grandparents may have experienced in their lives. But there are things we can do to maintain closeness with our families.
Buettner suggests the following strategies for maintaining family ties.
Maybe you can implement some of them into your routine
· Get closer by living in a smaller house. So many people live in sprawling “McMansions” these days, feeling that everyone needs their own space and room for every activity you can possibly think of. Yet families in the Blue Zones often live in very small homes, sometimes with only one or two rooms. You don’t have to live in a house that small, but living in a smaller space creates more opportunities for interaction. If you don’t want to sacrifice your space, be sure to establish times, such as at meals, where everyone gathers in one place. This will create more opportunities for interaction and connectedness.
· Establish rituals such as regular family meals, family vacations, holiday gatherings, or dinner with the grandparents once a week (or whatever is most convenient but consistent).
· Honor your ancestors by creating a family shrine or a picture wall with photos of children, parents, grandparents, and other relations. This establishes connections with those who came before us, as well as loved ones who are still with us today. It is important for children to know who their family is, even if they don’t often see them often.
· Put family first by putting time and energy into your family. Enjoy cooking family meals together, help the kids with homework, go on family vacations, nurture your marriage. These are simple things that we can easily achieve that will help to add years onto our lives.
Tip #7: Be part of a community
One of the things that people in all the Blue Zones had in common was that they all belonged to strong religious communities, whether that was Catholicism, Seventh Day Adventism, or the blended religion of the Okinawans that includes ancestor worship.
Many of us do belong to a religious community and attend regular religious services. However, more and more often there are many who do not subscribe to any particular religion, or find their faith in different ways than organized religion. Some may not adhere to any sort of religious belief at all. But that does not mean that you cannot be part of a community of like-minded people. The key is to find a community where you feel welcome, and that you can participate regularly in.
This may be an organization that you volunteer for or maybe a community center that holds regular activities and opportunities to socialize. The thing to remember is that participation has been cited as one of the things that enhances well-being, thereby increasing your chances of living a more purpose-filled life, and increasing social ties at the same time.
Studies have shown that having faith and attending religious services regularly reduced the risk of death by 1/3. Why is this?
Because, as Buettner states, “People who attend church are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors. They were physically more active, less likely to smoke, do drugs, or drink and drive.”
Additionally, he states that “To a certain extent, adherence to a religion allows them to relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power. A code of behavior is clearly laid out before them” (Buettner, 252).
Personally, I do not attend regular “church” services, but I do attend regular yoga classes, which is almost a religion in itself. Certainly, the practice of yoga is derived from ancient religious traditions in the eastern world. I find that when I do yoga, I feel a strong spiritual connection and sense of well-being, and attending yoga classes keeps me in touch with a community of like-minded people, as well as keeping my body strong and fit. Which brings us to the final tip.
Tip #8: Hang out with like-minded people
The preceding three tips all touched on the importance of social networks. In fact, Buettner cites a strong social network as perhaps the most important factor in living a longer life.
Studies have shown that the more social connectedness people had, whether that was strong relationships with family or friends, club memberships, volunteerism, or attending regular religious services, the greater the chance of them living longer – 9 years on average. Those with few or no social ties were 2-3 times more likely to die in a 9-year period!
Some of the reasons for this include a support system that can help you out in times of need, whether that be financially, emotionally, or just when you need help with something like a big project around the house, or something small like help cleaning or getting a meal on the table.
Also, it creates a level of accountability as far as behaviors and habits go. If you are hanging out with people who are practicing good habits, you are more likely to practice them as well. Which is why it is important to socialize regularly with people who share the same beliefs, morals, and interests as you.
Additionally, it creates a sense of self-worth and a feeling that you are loved and appreciated – that you matter. And we all want to feel that, right?
Get off social media and actually socialize!
These days it is so easy to live an isolated life. Especially with the advent of the internet, it is so easy to just stay at home on the computer, looking at Facebook or other social media, and thinking that it suffices as being social. But there is nothing quite like personal interaction.
After all, many of the people we interact with online are not going to be the people we can count on when the going gets rough. Most of the time, we don’t know if they are even paying attention to us, or if they even care. Certainly they are not going to be around to give us a hug or some extra help when we need it.
So get out there and socialize! Identify who your people – your “tribe”- are and make an effort to see them more often. Look through your address book and find the people that you have made a connection with in the past, and reach out to them. Even if they are not in the same city, state, or even country as you, if you were friends once, you can be friends again!
As stated in the preceding tips, volunteer, find a purpose, attend religious services or social events that you enjoy, bond with family. These are all ways that you can not only create and maintain social connections but perhaps also make a difference in someone else’s life or in the world. It will certainly make a difference in your world and will help you to live longer and enjoy a more meaningful life.
Living a Blue Zone life
I hope that you enjoyed these tips and that you will start to implement more of them into your life. I know that I will, because I want to be around to see my children to adulthood, and to watch them raise families of their own. More importantly, I want to continue to be an integral part of those families. I want to be around to help raise my grandchildren, and perhaps even my great-grandchildren.
Life is fascinating to me and I want to enjoy it as long as I possibly can!
For me personally, I definitely need to work on my social network and cultivate more close friendships. I have a lot of acquaintances that I would like to call friends, but it is a matter of making the time to socialize regularly. I admit, I can be lazy sometimes and just stay in the comfort of my own home with my little family. This is great for cultivating my family relationships, but not so much friends. But I am definitely working on it!
How about you? What tips do you think you could work on more?
Is it eating a healthier, more plant-based diet? Is it attending regular social events or finding a sense of purpose?
I would love to know your thoughts and what you struggle with. Perhaps I can share more lessons from “The Blue Zone” that can help you live a happier, and hopefully longer life.
Please leave your comments below!
In the words of the great Captain Spock,
“Live long and prosper”