9 Lessons of Longevity from the Blue Zone
Everyone wants to become it, but no one wants to be it - What is it?
The answer is Old.
Getting old means getting ill, being in pain and losing your ability to live life the way you want to.
Or does it?
I’m sure we can all think of one senior in our lives who beat the odds. I once worked with an older gentleman named Jim who at 80 moved better than people 40 years his younger. Whatever it is, he found the secret to aging gracefully.
Now, what if told you that there's an island in Greece by the name of Ikaria full of Jims. Where living to be over a hundred and maintaining your independence is the norm, not the exception?
Ikaria isn't alone. In fact, there are several places around the world that boast this feat called blue zones. A Blue Zone is a region where you can find a significantly higher rate of people who live to be 100+ Years old - also referred to as centenarians.
Following in the footsteps of the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth, Journalist Dan Buettner set out to find the secret to maintaining your youthfulness.
He along with his National Geographic team visited several of these blue zones to study their behaviors, actions, and culture with the hope of finding their secret to long-lasting lives.
He did not find a magical fountain or any special food that boost longevity, but he did find a set of common behaviors and actions that combined offer the true secret to longevity.
Here were the 9 lessons of the blue zones.
Each group of centenarians had this in common - movement was part of their life. Centenarians in Sardinia worked as shepherds most of their lives, Okinawans garden for hours, and Adventist take daily nature walks. In each group, movement was an important part of daily life.
There are mountains of research supporting the benefits of human movement on health. Exercise and movement keeps the body strong and resilient, the metabolism stays elevated and effective, and it increases blood flow to the body’s tissues.
While exercise is important, I would like to point out that many of these centenarians never worked out in the way we know today. They never went to the gym, never lifted weights, or went for runs on the treadmill.
Instead of working out, movement was part of their lives just like it would’ve been for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Whether it was gardening, walking, or other tasks, the centenarians moved naturally throughout the day. A workout is great, but as good as it is an hour in the gym can’t undo the sendentary habits of the other 23 hours of the day. How can you make movement part of your life?
Strategies for moving more
Find activities you enjoy and have fun. Biking, running, basketball, soccer, hiking, MMA, Dance, whatever the activity, do it.
Make activity part of your commute -
Walk as much as you can. Walk to the store, walk to your friend's house, or walk just to walk. Walking is inherently human and healthy.
It's just as low impact as walking but allows you to travel farther and faster. If you can, bike to work. You will feel happier and will have gotten a good dose of physical activity in without even having to think about it.
Make Life Harder
Put frequently used items on the high shelf. Sit on the floor so you have to get back up. Have a kid and chase it around. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Portion control was such an important part of the centenarians behavior that the Okinawans even had a phrase for it - Hara Hachi Bu. Hara Hachi Bu is a phrase that serves as a reminder to stop eating when your 80% full. The other cultures that were visited also had lean diets that kept portion control in check.
Caloric restriction seems to be effective for increasing longevity - Why? we don’t know. One by-product is that it helps to keep a person's body weight reasonable. The excess body weight and body fat that comes with the common western diet is associated with poor heart health, diabetes, and several other chronic diseases.
Tips for controlling your portion sizes
Use smaller plates
The bigger the plate, the more you will serve on it.
Buy smaller packages
Buying smaller packages will help limit the amount you eat
Store food after you serve yourself
Storing your food after you serve it will help discourage going back for seconds.
People consume more when they eat fast. Slowing down allows time for your body to register and let you know when you are full.
Focus on food. When people watch TV while eating, or do another distracting task they will be more likely to overeat.
Hara Hachi Bu
Stop eating at 80%. On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is starving and 5 is stuffed eat till 4 - comfortably full but with room for more.
Eat Food, Mostly Plants
The line above comes from journalist Michael Pollan who succinctly describes what makes a healthy diet.
Dan Buettner's research in the blue zones came to the same conclusion. Centenarians had little access to processed foods and meat. Instead, their diets were composed of real food, mostly plants. When they had meat, it was occasionally and in small portions.
Whole foods are full of vitamins, nutrients, and phytonutrient that our bodies need to work. There are tremendous amounts of research to support that eating whole foods and a diet high in vegetables improve longevity and health.
Eat a variety of whole natural nutrient-dense foods- This includes lean meats, fish, eggs, fruits, and veggies, whole wheat, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean meats
Aim to eat veggies at every meal
For maximizing longevity it may be worth it to reduce your intake of meat.
Avoid processed foods
Grapes of Life
Okinawans drink sake with friends, In Sardinia a glass of red wine. A drink in moderation may offer health benefits. The health benefits could also be from the time spent with good friends associated with these ritualistic drinks.
Like any habit in the blue zone, moderation is key. Keep the drinks to a minimum and enjoy the drink with good company. To get the health benefits, Buettner recommends a high quality dark red wine.
“Okinawans call it ikigai, and the Nicoyans of Costa Rica call it plan de vida, but in both cultures, the phrase essentially translates to ‘why I wake up in the morning’ or in other words your purpose for living.
Referenced in the book is a study by Dr. Ron Butler and the NIH who’s studies showed that people between 65 and 92 who expressed a clear goal in life, lived longer and were sharper than those who did not
Purpose is a key factor for happiness and happiness effects health. The key to a long life is having a meaningful reason to wake up the next morning.
A few tips for finding a purpose
Craft a mission statement - Answer the question in one sentence “Why do I wake up in the morning?”
The answer may be something as simple as your children or grandchildren, or as complex as changing the world.
To find a larger purpose for your life consider the following equation -
Purpose = Strengths + Passion + Values.
Identify what your strengths are, what you're passionate about, and what aligns with your values. Purpose can be found at this intersection.
Learn something new. Having something interesting or engaging planned during the day will leave you looking forward to waking up.
“I asked her if after a 107 years she had any advice for younger people. She looked up at me, eyes flashing. “Yes”, she shot back. “Life is short. Don’t run so fast you miss it”
What all the cultures and centenarians interviewed had in common were their ability to slow down and enjoy the moment. Contrast this with our American society where work bleeds into every part of our lives.
While a little stress can help us build resilience - chronic stress can destroy us. Each of the centenarians had a way to manage their stress.
Slow things down and enjoy the moment.
Spend time with good company
Do things you enjoy.
Unplug from work occasionally - make work time for work, family time for family, and you time for you.
Relieve stress doing activities you enjoy.
Have a spiritual community
Every blue zone culture had a strong faith. And there is research to support that those who are faithful are healthier and happier.
People who attend church are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors and were more physically active.
People who attended church have a forced schedule of self-reflection, and decompression through prayer or meditation.
Belonging to religious communities can foster larger denser social networks.
Religions often focus on having a positive mindset focusing on certain traits such as gratitude and charity.
Last, religion allows a person to relinquish stresses to a higher power."It was gods will".
These traits all help reinforce healthy behaviors such as positive thoughts, reducing stress, and building social networks. If you have a faith, Buettner encourages you to rekindle your relationship with your religion.
If you are not religious, you can still enjoy these benefits by setting your life up accordingly. Aim to have a community and build strong social networks, create time to take a day off and rest during the week, and make time for self-reflection and gratitude.
Loved one's first
The most successful centenarians all had a strong relationship with their families. Families offer us a powerful social network.
Seniors who lived with families were less susceptible to disease, eat healthier diets, have lower stress, remain sharper, and are less likely to have a serious incident. In return, these seniors can provide valuable knowledge, and can help take care of grandchildren.
Establish rituals - such as a family meal each or family vacation. Celebrate holidays together.
Get closer - Families that live together spend more time together and have closer bonds
Put family first - make it a point to invest time and energy into spending time with your children, spouse, and parents.
You are the average of the people you spend the most time with. If you spend time with happy people you will be happier if you spend time with people
All the centenarians were surrounded by others with similar healthy values. They each had a strong sense of community. Studies show that higher social connectedness leads to greater longevity.
Humans are social creatures and you should surround yourself with people who share your values. To find a community of belonging and form strong social networks.
Identify your inner circle - go through your contact with friends and family. Think about which one's support healthy habits, challenge you mentally, and are reliable.
Be likable - likable people attract other people. Be the person you would want to spend time with.
Create time together - Make it a priority to spend time with people in your inner circle. Make a regular meeting time, share a meal, or take a walk. Building strong relationships requires effort but can yield big benefits to your health and happiness.
Join a club or group - joining groups with people who have a similar interest will help give you an easy way to meet new people with similar interest.
We don’t have to age into pain and dependence.
While there is no secret to longevity, there are actions you can take to live a long and healthy life. The blue zones does a great job at boiling those action down into changes we can all make.
If you’d like to read the book for yourself you can read purchase the book through the link below.
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