Have you ever heard of the so-called Blue Zones? Blue Zones are regions of the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest. There are five Blue Zones, including Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
The term was first used by Dan Buettner, an explorer, author, and educator, who published a story about ‘The Secrets of a Long Life’ in National Geographic magazine in 2005. The story was such a hit that Buettner hired a team of experts, including demographers, anthropologists, medical researchers, epidemiologists, biologists, psychologists, geriatricians, and the most renowned longevity scientists to take a closer look at these longevity hotspots and their numerous healthy centenarians. As they analyzed both the genes, as well as the environment and lifestyle of the world’s longest-living people, they have concluded that while the genes seem to play no major role in their longevity, their environment and lifestyle seem to be the key.
Ultimately, Buettner and his team of researchers found that all 5 Blue Zones share 9 specific lifestyle habits, which seem to hold the key to longevity. They concluded that anyone who would adopt those healthy habits could add on more good disease-free years and reach their potential maximum lifespan.
There are 9 lifestyle habits and secrets of the world’s healthiest people who live the longest and in this article, we will explore these habits, explain them, and discover how to create our own tiny Blue Zone, which will help us live longer. In fact, studies have shown that adopting these healthy habits and a Blue Zones lifestyle could increase your life expectancy by up to 10-12 years.
1. Move Naturally
People in Sardinia, Okinawa, Nicoya, Ikaria, and Loma Linda are all known for being physically active on a daily basis. They don’t run marathons, they are not professional basketball players, and they are not going to the gym. Instead, they engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity. Their work, environment, and lifestyle constantly nudge them into natural movement.
Male centenarians in Sardinia, for example, worked the majority of their lives as shepherds and thus had to hike for miles each day. People in Okinawa tend to garden for several hours a day. Seventh-Day Adventists from Loma Lina, California take regular nature walks. These centenarians don’t use electrical appliances for house and yard work and Okinawans even sit on the floor, which forces them to get up and sit back down several times a day.
The ideal exercise routine would include a combination of aerobic, balancing, flexibility, and muscle-strengthening activities. Aerobic activities, like walking, swimming, hiking support your cardiovascular system. Doing yoga and practicing other balancing activities will help you avoid falls. Stretching on a regular basis will keep you limber. And strength training will build up and maintain muscles, which is also related to longevity. Overall, the goal should be to incorporate at least 30 minutes (ideally 60 minutes or more) of exercise at least five times a week into your daily routine.
To move as they do in Blue Zones, try some of the following strategies, which may nudge you into moving naturally.
- Inconvenience yourself – take the stairs, get rid of some electrical appliances, change the channel on the TV set, walk or bike to work or the store, etc.
- Make a list of all the physical activities you enjoy and do them regularly.
- Walk as much as possible. Walking is always accessible (even at work, where you can take a walking break instead of a coffee break), it is easier on the joints than many other sports, and it even invites company – and having strong social connections is just as important, as you will see below.
- Plant a garden, as gardening is a low-intensity, full-range-of-motion activity. Gardening can also relieve stress, plus, it provides fresh vegetables.
- Practice yoga at least twice a week.
- Work out with other people. Not only will you get the benefit of socializing, but you and your workout partner will also encourage each other and will be more likely to make it a habit.
2. Hara Hachi Bu – The 80% Rule
‘Hara Hachi Bu’ is a 2500-year old Confucian mantra, which Okinawans use before each meal to remind them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. This is a simple way to cut calories and avoid gaining weight.
This rule may only be used in Asia, however, all the people from the Blue Zones follow another similar principle – their last meal of the day is their smallest and lightest meal and they eat it late in the afternoon or early in the evening. Afterward, they allow their bodies to rest and digest until morning.
In addition, they eat approximately 2000 calories a day. Cutting calories has been shown to have numerous health benefits, including reducing cellular damage from free radicals, reducing the risk of heart disease, and maintaining a healthy body mass index.
Instead of going on a diet, which almost never works, make sure not to overeat, to have a light dinner, and allow your digestive system to rest 12 hours a day. Instead of eating until you are full, eat until you no longer feel hungry and opt for foods with low caloric density.
To eat less, try some of the following tips and tricks.
- Instead of placing all the food on the table, serve yourself at the counter and store the food. This way you will be more likely to avoid unnecessary seconds.
- Making food look bigger will make you feel fuller and eat less.
- If you use small plates, glasses, and other vessels, you are more like to automatically eat less.
- Buy smaller packages, as studies have shown that people who opt for larger packages eat about 23% more.
- Avoid tempting unhealthy foods. Keep the temptations out of sight by hiding them in the cupboard, instead of leaving them on the counter. Not bringing unhealthy snacks to your home would be even better.
- Eating faster tends to result in eating more, therefore make sure to eat slowly and give your body time to let you know that you are no longer hungry.
- Eat mindfully. Instead of eating while watching the TV or engaging in an intense conversation, which may result in mindless overeating, focus on the food and savor it.
- Eating on the run is likely to result in mindless overeating. As such, make sure to have a seat while eating – do it purposefully and mindfully.
- Eat early and try to eat the biggest meal of the day during the first half of the day, as they do in Blue Zones. The last meal should be consumed in the late afternoon or early evening and it should be light.
- Set a reminder that will remind you not to overeat. Place the scale in your proximity, which will remind you to weigh daily and will in turn enable you to lose weight more easily.
3. Plant Slant – Plant-based Diet
When it comes to longevity, the right kind of diet is of utmost importance. Most centenarians in Blue Zones have never had the opportunity to develop a habit of eating processed food, sodas, and salty snacks. In addition, they rarely eat meat. Residents of Sardinia, Okinawa, Ikaria, and Nicoya only eat meat on special occasions, while Loma Linda’s Adventists avoid meat entirely.
Scientists have found that people who restrict their meat consumption tend to live longer than those who eat meat on a daily basis. While avoiding meat completely may not be necessary, it is vital to stick to a mainly plant-based unprocessed diet. Make the following foods the staple of your diet:
- Garden vegetables
- Fresh fruits
- Beans and legumes, including fava, black, lentils, and soy
- Whole grains
- Nuts, especially almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, and some pine nuts
Try some of the following tips to add more plants to your diet.
- Limit your meat consumption. Do your best to only eat 1-2 servings of meat a week and make the portions no larger than a deck of cards.
- Eat four to six servings of vegetables a day.
- Keep your fruits and vegetables somewhere visible, where it will remind you to take them regularly.
- Eat beans or legumes on a daily basis.
- Make sure to eat nuts every day, as nuts have been shown to help extend your life expectancy. Stock up on nuts and use them as a healthy snack.
4. Grapes of Life – Red Wine in Moderation
Residents of most Blue Zones (except the Loma Linda Adventists) drink red wine or another alcoholic beverage, however, they do so in moderation. A daily drink or two has been associated with lower rates of heart disease, however, regular alcohol consumption has also been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. It also has some other benefits, like stress reduction, decreased damaging effects of chronic inflammation, and the fact that having a drink in Blue Zones seems to convert a regular meal into an event, which makes people more likely to sit down and take their time.
Red wine, in particular, offers some additional benefits, as it contains artery-scrubbing polyphenols and other antioxidants. However, make sure not to drink more than a drink or two a day, as alcohol has negative effects on the liver, brain, and other organs and increases the risk of accidents.
To follow this longevity secret, try the following tips.
- Buy a case of high-quality red wine, preferably Cannonau from Sardinia, which is particularly healthy. If you can’t find it in your local store, any dark red wine should do the trick.
- Have a happy hour with your friends or spouse. Snack on nuts and drink a glass of wine.
5. Purpose Now
Having a sense of purpose in life is crucial. It has been shown to act as a buffer against stress and reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, or stroke. According to an 11-year study, people between the ages of 65 and 92 that have a clear goal in life, a reason to get up in the morning, seem to live longer and healthier lives than those that don’t. In fact, having a sense of purpose may add up to seven extra years to your life.
A sense of purpose can come from wanting to see your children and grandchildren grow up, from a job, a hobby, or anything that makes you feel immersed in the moment and in flow. Setting a new goal, like learning a new language or an instrument, can also give you a sense of purpose, plus, it keeps your brain sharper.
The following could help you realize your purpose:
- Find your sense of purpose by crafting a personal mission statement. To do so, simply answer this simple question: Why do you get up in the morning? Reflect on what you are passionate about, how you enjoy using your skills and talents, and what is truly important to you.
- Find a person to whom you can tell your life purpose so that the person can assess your plan and encourage you to stay on track.
- Learn something new, preferably a new language or musical instrument, as those activities have been shown to have the strongest effect on mental sharpness.
According to some estimates, stress is responsible for more deaths than smoking, bad diet, and lack of physical activity. People in Blue Zones are great at taking time to relieve stress. They either rest and socialize, take a walk, have a drink with friends, pray or meditate, take a nap, and pause to enjoy the moment.
Loma Linda’s Adventists observe their Saturday Sabbath – a weekly break from the challenges of daily life. It gives them a weekly opportunity to focus on their loved ones, spirituality, and nature. The 24-hour Sabbath enables them to go out in nature, socialize with friends, spend time with their familiar, and unwind. On Saturdays, they don’t work, do homework, play organized sports, or do anything of the kind.
Chronic stress may cause chronic inflammation, which can promote age-related diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Therefore, taking time to slow down is of utmost importance in regard to longevity.
Downshifting also gives you the time to eat right, socialize, exercise, spend time in nature, find time for spirituality, and live life with purpose.
To help you destress and slow down, try the following techniques:
- Be early for every appointment. Arriving 15 minutes early minimizes the stress from traffic and other unpredictable factors. In addition, it gives you time to prepare for the appointment, instead of rushing in.
- Reduce the noise. Turning off electronic devices may help you reduce the amount of aural clutter and mind chatter in your life. Get rid of some devices or limit them to one room.
- Meditate. Practices like meditation and yoga give you an opportunity to slow down your thoughts, focus on the now, and truly unwind. Meditation is one of the best and most effective relaxation techniques. Find a quiet place and establish a regular meditation schedule. Do your best to meditate for at least 10 minutes every day.
- Make sure to sleep for at least 7 hours a day, as sleep is one of the best ways to relax, plus, it allows your body to heal and restore.
Even though people from the Blue Zones belong to different religious communities, they all have faith or a sense of spirituality. Regardless of whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu, studies have shown that participating in a spiritual community and attending religious services (even as seldomly as once a month) also has a positive effect on longevity. Experts have found that people who pay attention to their spirituality have lower rates of depression, stress, suicide, cardiovascular disease, and stronger immune systems.
Not only are spiritual people healthier, but they are also happier. They are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors, more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, more physically active, less likely to smoke, more likely to unwind, meditate, and self-reflect. Participating in a religious community can also build strong social networks, encourage positive expectations, build faith that everything is going to be alright, and thus provide peace of mind.
To cultivate your spiritual side, you can try the following strategies:
- In case you don’t have any religious faith, explore a new tradition and community. Learn about a new religion and once you find a faith that resonates with you, consider joining the community.
- In case you already belong to a religious community, try to take a more active role in it. Consider volunteering or attending the choir. Otherwise, simply make sure to attend the religious service every once in a while.
- In case you are not willing to attend a religious service, try volunteering or simply cultivate kindness, compassion, and generosity. You can also try connecting with nature and feeling grateful to the Universe for everything it has given you.
8. Loved Ones First
People from the Blue Zones make family their top priority. They tend to marry, have children and build their lives around their families. They create family rituals and make it a priority to spend time with their loved ones. Not only do they prioritize their living family members, but Okinawans even honor their ancestors’ memories.
Making family a priority results in children and grandchildren caring for their elderly parents and grandparents, which prolongs their life span. In four Blue Zones, the younger generation even welcomes the older family members in their homes. Studies have shown that elders who live with their children are less susceptible to disease, are more relaxed, follow healthier diets, have fewer accidents, and have better mental and social skills.
To get closer to your family members, try these tips:
- Get closer. Living in a smaller home automatically creates an environment of togetherness. If you live in a large home, on the other hand, establish a family room where you and your family members can gather daily.
- Establish family rituals. Children enjoy rituals and established routines. Make sure to have at least one meal together, to go on a family vacation at least once a year, to have dinner with grandparents and other family members once a week, to celebrate holidays together, or perhaps even observe a Saturday Sabbath.
- Create a family shrine to display pictures of your family members (even the deceased ones), your kids’ artwork, their important possessions, etc.
- Put your children, spouse, and parents first. Spend time with them, take care of them, and nurture your relationships.
9. Right Tribe
Surround yourself with positive people who share Blue Zone values. For the residents of the actual Blue Zones, it comes naturally, as they all live in the same relatively isolated areas and reinforce each other’s healthy habits.
Social connectedness in general is one of the vital longevity secrets. It gives us a sense of security, support, love, and closeness. Numerous studies have shown that people with more social connectedness live longer. Social connectedness can mean having a spouse, strong ties with family members and friends, joining a club or community, or volunteering. The type of social connectedness is not important, as even the lack of a partner or spouse can be compensated for by other social connections.
To find your tribe and strengthen social connectedness try the following strategies:
- Identify your tribe or inner circle. Go through your address book or contact list and circle the people (especially family members) who are positive, support healthy habits, challenge you mentally, and the ones you can always rely on in case of need. These are the people you should spend more time with. Research from Framingham Studies has found that obesity, smoking, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious, therefore it is important to spend time with the right kind of people.
- Be positive and thus likable. Positive, warm, and real people are likable and likable people are more likely to have a social network, frequent visitors, and perhaps even caregivers in old age. They also seem to be less stressed and have a sense of purpose in life.
- Try to spend at least 30 minutes a day with some of your family members or friends. Share a meal together every once in a while, invite them for a walk, or even call them on the phone. Building a strong relationship with someone may require time and effort, but the rewards are worth it!
5 additional longevity secrets according to a 2020 study
In addition to what the Blue Zones teach us about living longer and healthier lives, a 2020 prospective cohort study published in the British Medical Journal has identified 5 similar lifestyle habits linked to a longer life expectancy free of chronic disease. The five lifestyle factors strongly related to a longer lifespan are:
- Never smoking
- A healthy body mass index (BMI) of 18.5-24.9
- Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity (at least 30 minutes a day, at least 5 times a week)
- Moderate alcohol intake (1 drink a day)
- A higher diet quality score (mostly plant-based, organic, full of fresh vegetables, fruits, lentils, whole grains, and nuts)