What do Sardinia, Okiniwa, Loma Linda, Ikaria and Nicoya have in common? Other than that I had to Google them to find out where they are located on earth, these cities are all referred to as the Blue Zones. As detailed in-depth on http://www.bluezones.com, and in his book (1), Dan Buettner shares information of investigations by demographers, epidemiologists, medical personnel and ethnographers that discovered the commonalities in the way that people residing there live. The reason? These cities are home to the healthiest, longest living populations on earth, with many people thriving past 100 years of age. The research identified nine lifestyle characteristics which keep the residents in good health and, as we move towards 2014, it is timely to highlight what these are – particularly if you’re looking at setting any New Year resolutions for the year ahead. The goals of eating a better diet or undertaking more physical activity are stock standard for pretty much anyone, and if you’re reading this blog then it’s likely you either eat well or have the intention of doing so in the near future. So take a closer look at the other lifestyle aspects uncovered by the research. Optimal health is about so much more than just a good diet and regular exercise.
1. Move Naturally – There is good evidence to show that incidental activity, outside of structured exercise, is equally (if not more, in some cases) beneficial for health. Many athletes I know work hard during their two hour training session and then move very little throughout the day. Taking the opportunity to walk where possible, to garden, clean, stretching , all of these contribute to incidental activity that is important for metabolic health. So, athlete or not, find opportunities to move throughout the day in everyday life.
2. Have A Purpose – In Okinawa it’s “Ikigai” (icky-guy) and in Costa Rica call it “plan de vida”. In other words… “It’s why I wake up in the morning.” Having a sense of purpose can extend the number of healthy years you live. Without clear goals people can become directionless, leading to poorer mental health outcomes. Depending on your lifestyle, setting goals around family, career, sport, community etc can help motivate and inspire you to get up every day. These don’t have to be monumental – just meaningful to you.
3. No Stress – Stress leads to chronic inflammation, well recognised now as the underlying cause of chronic disease. associated with every major age-related disease. Some stress is important – this is what helps us grow physically and mentally; however too much stress can burn you out and break you down. Perhaps a goal this year is to take time out for you – even a few minutes – to meditate, reflect, or even regroup for the coming day. This year I’m starting a gratitude journal – writing down three things morning and night that I’m grateful for. Not only has it been suggested that writing (pen and paper) help us connect better to the words written on the page, it helps remind us that, even in the most challenging of times, there are people, things and situations around us that we can be thankful for.
4. 80% Rule – “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawans practice this Confucian principle of eating that is 2500 years old. It’s translation means to stop eating when you are 80% full. This takes some discipline and time to get used to – but a few strategies can help. Eat from a smaller plate and wait 10-20 minutes before seconds. Chew food properly and eat slowly to help digestion. Feel satisfied and not stuffed.
5. Plant based diet – Most Blue Zone people do not have a meat based diet – and similarly the paleo way is to eat a good amount of vegetables, some fruit, then including nutrient-dense animal protein along with nuts, seeds, eggs and good fats that occur naturally (butter, coconut) along with olive oil. Contrary to popular belief, many people following a paleo template would also describe their diet as ‘80% vegetarian.’
6. Wine @ 5 – Other than the Seventh-day Adventists, most people in the Blue Zones (not the Adventists) enjoy alcohol regularly, 1-2 glasses a day. While I wouldn’t encourage you to start drinking if you currently don’t, abstaining from moderate amounts of alcohol in the name of health is unnecessary in the context of other health promoting habits. Ensure you drink a non-alcoholic sparkling water prior to your first drink though, and don’t drink your weekly alcohol quota in one sitting.
7. Belong In A Community – Most centenarians were part of a community and connected to faith, whether it is a church based or praying to the ancestors. That didn’t seem to matter. It might not be a religion, but it’s a type of spirituality or connection that people can draw from. I don’t have a religious leaning, but, like many people, I have a sense of spirituality that I draw on in certain situations, or in certain settings. For me, being surrounded by bush, typically running, makes me feel more calm and grounded. I can’t think of how else to explain it (and I probably don’t need to for those who also love getting outdoors). There is research to suggest the act of ‘grounding’ and connecting to the earth helps reduce mental health issues and stress levels.
8. Loved Ones – Centenarians in the Blue Zones have close ties to family – both immediate and extended. Your family isn’t necessarily those related by blood – family can equally be your friends and those close to you and who share in your everyday life. Whoever your family might be, take time out to connect with them frequently. While social networking may contribute to the disintegration of some relationships, I now have a relationship with my brother and sister who live elsewhere that I never had when we were younger, thanks to Facebook.
9. Be Part Of the Right Tribe – The centenarians who live in the Blue Zones chose to spend time with people who share similar behaviour patterns. Many of my friends enjoy training regularly, love healthy food and spend hours waxing lyrical about it over some good wine or craft beer. We never ruin a party by leaving too early – it’s almost expected. While that might seem unexciting to you, it’s how we roll and wouldn’t have it any other way. If your close friends measure the success of a night by the number of shots they downed, that’s cool – but it’s not going to be as easy for you to follow a healthier lifestyle. Research shows that unhealthy lifestyle habits are ‘contagious’; likewise, living a healthy lifestyle can be too. I’m not saying you need to ditch your friends if they lead you astray on the path to good health, but perhaps you need to start a health revolution among them.
So as you reflect on 2013 and plan for 2014, perhaps you could adopt two or three strategies to create your own ‘Blue Zone’ within the busy-ness of modern-day living. While it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll live for a longer number of years, over time these habits may give you more life in the years you do live.
(1) Buettner, D. (2012) The Blue Zones. 9 Lessons for living longer from the people who have lived the longest. (2nd Ed.) National Geographic Society: Washington, D.C.