“The same things that help us live a long, healthy life are the things that make life worth living.”
Dan Buettner, an explorer, author, and founder of Blue Zones LLC, traveled around the world searching for the secrets to living a longer and more fulfilling life in the Netflix Documentary “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.”
The conclusions as to why so many centenarians exist in specific regions worldwide illustrate how deeply the surrounding environment and our mental well-being impact long-term health results.
Buettner traveled to the five locations worldwide with the highest average lifespans, the so-called “blue zones”: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Icaria, Greece; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
Each zone contained four strong similarities: a positive outlook, robust connections, a healthy diet, and natural movement.
In Okinawa, Japan, the residents have a word for purpose, ikagai, that they preach. In Nicoya, Costa Rica, plan de vida has a similar meaning. Strong motives such as these create the framework for a long, healthy life.
Each zone strongly emphasized faith to reiterate the message of purpose. Blue zones emphasize that weekly religious ceremonies develop a strong sense of community and a positive outlook.
Daily rituals to unwind from stress exist in every blue zone. Pressure, which is overly present for many in the United States, has detrimental effects on long-term health. Buettner said, “In Nicoya, just like all the other blue zones, people would never do a couple of extra hours of work when they could be enjoying their family, taking a siesta, or interacting with their friends.”
In each region, happy hours and daily gatherings for meals create the sense of purpose we crave and build the importance of the community we need. Loma Linda's strong emphasis on volunteering establishes the purpose that so many desire.
Buettner estimates that 50% of the formula for a long and happy life stems from close relationships and family. Each blue zone invests immensely in intimate relationships and their immediate social circle, children, family, and community.
In Okinawa, groups called “moais” were originally formed to pool money and help each other financially during hardship. Buettner states, “On the surface, a moai is simply a financial arrangement. But I believe the benefits transcend money.” Moais stood the test of time and helped to foster long-lasting, deep friendships. Parents in blue zones ensure their children have a strong group of friends so that these lifelong friendships add to the purpose and connection humans need.
Each blue zone has a central focus on family. More often than not, family members live close by and see each other consistently. Rarely do the centenarians ever go to nursing homes because they have a robust support system from their family who lives close by.
Additionally, a deep connection with a spouse is key to living longer. “We can’t underestimate how this type of connection can lead to a longer, more fulfilled life,” Buettner says, “People in the Blue Zones make their partners a priority, nurture their relationships, and invest in them.”
A nutritious diet is vital to our health. However, each Blue Zone strongly emphasizes how we eat more than what we eat. Residents gather together and express gratitude for their many blessings. Meals are a celebration that strengthens the ties and outlook necessary for a fulfilling life.
In Okinawa, before meals, people say “Hara Hachi Bu,” meaning eat until you are about 80% full. This emphasis on moderation and a nutritious diet free from processed foods and sugar leads to overwhelmingly positive health effects.
As for what Blue Zone residents mostly eat, it is primarily whole, plant-based foods. Although they occasionally eat meat, it is rare and often accounts for an insignificant amount of their calories. In Loma Linda, vegetarianism and veganism are popular; the Adventist culture promotes a plant-based diet. Adventists primarily eat fruits and vegetables, with less than 5% of their caloric intake from meat.
In Sardinia, much of the caloric intake comes from minestrone, consisting of beans, the available vegetables, and sometimes pasta. In Nicoya, centenarians spent most of their life eating almost exclusively beans, squash, and corn.
In the United States, billions of dollars are spent on exercise programs, yet millions struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In blue zones, however, a healthy lifestyle is already baked into their way of life. People are exercising without even consciously trying.
In Sardinia, men live much longer than the global average; the most predominant career is a shepherd, a position in which they must constantly move to tend to their sheep. The cities in Sardinia are on steep hillsides, making even a simple walk around town a healthy workout.
Nicoyan people have an average biological age ten years younger than their actual age. Everything is done by hand in Nicoya, without mechanical machines to aid work or cooking, which leads to daily unconscious exercise.
In Okinawa, almost all residents in rural areas have gardens. In addition to nutrition benefits, gardens require daily care and, thus, moderate exercise to take care of.
In blue zones, the way of life baked into the surrounding environment has long-term health benefits that decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
To extrapolate the knowledge gained from blue zones, Buettner started an initiative in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where he created programs to foster a positive outlook, connections, diet, and way of life. He created walking groups, where 50% of participants gained lifelong friends. He curated volunteering opportunities and helped grocery stores provide healthier food options in addition to making the city more walkable. These simple programs led to an average life expectancy in Albert Lea 3.1 years longer than before Buettner arrived.
In Singapore, where one of the happiest and healthiest populations in the world lives, the government has helped citizens help themselves through government-sponsored programs. These include exercise programs, efficient public transportation that encourages walking, subsidizing healthier food options, and other related efforts that, combined with economic growth, led to a life expectancy that is now 20 years higher than in the 1960s.
Our environment, including high-stress occupations and little incentive for walking and consistent movement, contributes to poor health outcomes in the United States despite the world’s largest economy. Trials like the one in Albert Lea prove that with constant efforts to change our environment, the wisdom of blue zones can help contribute to a healthier and more fulfilled population in the long term.
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