7 lessons we can learn from the world’s healthiest regions
There are specific regions on earth that have the highest number of centenarians and the good news is, scientists think they know why.
Researchers have long pondered what it takes to have a long and happy life. They’ve now zeroed in on those who do particularly well in the longevity stakes, labeling the areas these vital types inhabit as ‘Blue Zones’.
Researcher Dan Buettner and National Geographic spearheaded the Blue Zone movement in 2004. They gathered a bunch of anthropologists, epidemiologists and other experts to travel the globe, interviewing hundreds of people in the study of the world’s most centenarian-rich communities.
Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Costa Rica’s Nicoya, Icaria in Greece, a few regional pockets of Sweden and an area of California inhabited by Seventh Day Adventists are all Blue Zones according to the research, filled with long-living, healthy people.
So what do those in these seemingly unrelated locations have in common when it comes to healthy lifestyle characteristics? A whole lot, it would seem. Allowing for some local and cultural variation, they share some easy to replicate life-extending lessons we can all benefit from:
Live with purpose
The Blue Zoners are not making a habit of being curled up alone in front of the TV watching Netflix. Connection and a sense of belonging are paramount to their wellbeing. They have people to see, work to do and a purposeful approach to each day. Family, friends, work and spirituality all play an important role in Blue Zone life and meaningful engagement is the name of the game.
A UCL-led study of 9,050 British 65-year-olds on Subjective wellbeing, health, and ageing confirmed that this is also the case in non-Blue Zones. It focused on a type of wellbeing called ‘eudemonic wellbeing’ and found that those who ranked highly in terms of wellbeing had longer life expectancy. (Eudemonic wellbeing encompasses your sense of control, feeling that what you do is worthwhile, and your sense of purpose in life.)
Move it or lose it
While the Blue Zone crew aren’t heading off to the gym each day, they do avoid a sedentary life and activity is their natural default. Their purposeful life keeps them moving and rather than the intense exercise many of us are making time for in our day, they are focusing on incidental and slow-but-steady movement.
Science tells us that this is a great approach, with incidental activity proven to keep humans healthy and vital.
It’s easy being green
It’s not just bitter or leafy greens making an appearance on the Blue Zone plant-heavy dinner plate, though. Beans, nuts, pulses, potatoes, turmeric, tofu, olive oil, fruit and legumes feature, too. While there’s wide dietary variation from zone to zone here, a mostly plant based diet is the common thread amongst these healthy people with a small serve of meat being eaten just once a week.
Many Blue Zoners also sensibly take their smallest meal at the end of the day, eat from small plates or bowls and many are known to put the fork down before they feel full.
Researchers say that a glass of red wine with your evening meal may help you lose weight, but the Blue Zone inhabitants are long-living proof that it may also have other benefits.
Biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Patrick McGovern, says there can be a role for moderate alcohol consumption - for a whole variety of survival-related reasons including social connection and bacterial control - and the Blue Zone diet attests to this.
Naps for life!
Modern life has many of us frantically squeezing as much activity as we can out of every moment, but the Blue Zone gang know the value of slowing down and taking a little respite each day. Experts say that the siesta-driven approach is a healthy choice.
‘If you’re napping 30 minutes a day, five days a week, statistics indicate that your chance of heart disease could be up to one third lower than if you muscle through the afternoon.’ Blue Zone researcher Dan Buettner says.
The life-lengthening power of sex
Buettner says that regular sex has the power to prolong our life, too. The Okinawa Blue Zoners had similar life expectancy to the rest of the world, but they were in a much healthier, happier state as they grew older.
“They grow old in a much better state. Some in their nineties can honestly vouch that they still have an active sex life,” one researcher noted.
The sense of connection, coupled with the benefits of some saucy ‘incidental activity’ may just be the perfect life-extending combination!
The powerful health-giving effects that this lifestyle creates not only ensure that Blue Zoners feel a sense of belonging and wellness, it also keeps a lid on stress and anxiety. Those in the zone made real attempts to live their lives in a way that was as stress-less as possible.
For those keen to follow the Blue Zone approach, reassessing your work load, where you live and who you spend your time with are a great stress-busting place to start - combined with the aforementioned longevity promoting ideals, of course! Here’s hoping you get in the zone.