Modern life can be so busy that we instinctively reach for outside wisdom to remind us of what really matters and show us how to be the best versions of ourselves.
Anyone who's ever attended a motivational meeting knows all about reaching for wisdom outside of ourselves. The sayings "There's no 'I' in team" and "All progress takes place outside the comfort zone" are familiar refrains at these gatherings.
Sometimes these mantras or a good quote can help take us out of our momentary struggles and direct us toward healthy living.
"Healthy isn't a goal, it's a way of living."
Here's what the Blue Zones have to teach us about community, food, exercise, faith, and purpose.
What Are the Blue Zones?
Like great quotes, outstanding health studies can be distilled into a few key points that invite curiosity and self-reflection.
In Dan Buettner's The Blue Zones, we discover several unifying characteristics of the five most long-lived regions in the world:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Loma Linda, California
Residents of these communities not only live much longer than average, they often maintain their health over the course of their years and report significant happiness levels that exceed those of populations around the world.
According to an article by Dan Buettner and Sam Skemp, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other common afflictions of the industrialized world are relatively rare occurrences for Blue Zoners.
Apparently, a spry 103-year-old Okinawan selling fish at an outdoor market and a witty 102-year-old Sardinian toasting life with a glass of moscato share a secret that they don't even know about.
The Blue Zones: Common Denominators
So, what do the Okinawan and Sardinian have in common?
While it's tempting to think that people living in the Blue Zones are somehow genetically superior, the theory is easily dismissed. Genes are believed to account for only 20 percent of our longevity, leaving lifestyle and environment to compose the rest of the picture.
Beuttner and his team of researchers reverse-engineered longevity. They identified these nine traits that all Blue Zone inhabitants share. The traits are referred to as the "Power 9."
1. Move Naturally
You probably won't find a Blue Zoner driving to the gym at 5 a.m. to catch the latest spin class. Exercise is built naturally into the society in which Blue Zone residents live.
Tending gardens, using manual tools, baking bread, herding animals, and walking from one errand to the next are all common ways people exercise in the Blue Zones.
As for more rigorous forms of exercise, studies have shown that high-intensity, short-term exercise doesn't provide any unique benefit when it comes to longevity and health. As any Blue Zone resident can attest, you don't need to be able to run marathons to live to be 100-years-old.
Sure, CrossFit may be the best way to build muscle as quickly as possible and Orangetheory Fitness may be the best way to master your rowing form, but if longevity and overall health are your concern, moving naturally will get you there just fine.
"Purpose" might feel like an intimidating word best reserved for describing church missionary work, but according to Dan Beuttner, the concept is pretty simple.
In Nicoya, purpose is called plan de vida. In Okinawa, they refer to it as ikigai. Regardless of the phrase you use, just knowing what gets you out of bed in the morning can add up to seven years to your life expectancy.
If you're looking to identify your own purpose, this can be as complex as defining your overarching life vision or as simple as coming up with a few key goals to accomplish over the next few weeks.
3. Down Shift on Stress
No one is immune to stress. However, the people in the Blue Zones appear to be more adept at handling it than most. Having daily rituals to discharge negative or overwhelming emotion is a key component in being able to navigate life's surprises.
The form this daily ritual takes doesn't really matter, either. Napping, attending happy hour, honoring ancestors, and praying all have the potential to bring a person back into equilibrium.
The key is to find what soothes your soul and build it into your daily routine as a habit.
4. The 80% Rule of Eating
It takes the human brain up to twenty minutes to register fullness, so it's no wonder that overeating is de rigueur for most cultures. The residents of the Blue Zones, however, are different. They tend to consume smaller portions overall and eat their smallest meals at the end of the day.
The reward? The Blue Zoners have proven to have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight and are granted all of the health benefits that are associated with being lean.
The 80% rule suggests that you stop eating once you feel about 80% full. Not only does this trick help you develop self-awareness and mindfulness of your body's sensations, but also it helps prevent overeating since it takes time to register "100% fullness."
5. High Plant Diet
We tell our kids to eat their broccoli and, intuitively, we know that vegetables are good for us. Now we have science to back it up.
A recent study has linked animal protein consumption with a higher risk for mortality. The diets of Blue Zone residents are dominated by legumes, garden vegetables, and whole grains – with meat being only an occasional indulgence.
To get all the benefits of The Blue Zone lifestyle, turn up the dial on your veggie intake and dial back the beef, chicken, pork, cheese, and eggs.
6. Wine at 5
There's been a lot of debate about whether or not wine is healthy for us. Several studies, including those conducted by Buettner in his investigation of the Blue Zones, indicate that wine can be beneficial to health. People in the Blue Zones enjoy alcohol regularly and in moderation.
According to his research, Buettner recommends drinking 1-2 glasses of wine a day with friends, with or without food. His findings suggest that moderate drinkers outlive people who don't drink.
Faith is an anchor for many people in the world, including most Blue Zone residents. Attending any faith-based service regularly can add 4-14 years to life expectancy, says The Blue Zones author.
According to Dan Buettner, all but five of the 263 Blue Zone residents over 100 years of age that his team interviewed belonged to a faith-based community.
Buettner's research indicates that the denomination of faith you belong to doesn't matter. Similarly, diety-based faith such as Christianity, Judiasm, and Muslim practices were just as powerful as spirituality-based faiths like Taoism and spiritual meditation. Any faith-based activities prolonged the lives of the people his team interviewed.
8. Prioritize Loved Ones
In the United States, it's common for a nuclear family to raise children, send them off to college, and then for the kids to move elsewhere to start their own families. In this tradition, extended families end up spread all over the country.
Families are built a little differently in the Blue Zones. Generations keep together and look after one another – and children flourish because of it.
Childhood disease and mortality rates plummet when grandparents live in the home or nearby. Moreover, grandparents who babysit regularly live longer.
9. Right Tribe
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk surrounding "finding your tribe" on social media and in self-help programs. However, this concept is anything but new.
Just ask anyone living in the Blue Zones – surrounding oneself with people who encourage well-being is one of the wisest health investments that a person can make.
There are special people in the world who have the ability to know you better than you know yourself. They are your tribe. They love you, encourage you, and and see you through the best and worst of life.
Think of building your tribe as customizing your own family. Sure, you have biological relatives who you love and are close to, but you can also self-select other members of your family who aren't genetically your relatives. Doing so builds a sense of support, stability, and diversity in your life that can enhance longevity.
Blue Zoning Your Life
Aging gracefully isn't about trying to be healthy. It's something that happens naturally when life is set up in a way that supports us on all fronts. The longevity solution that we're looking for isn't hiding in any magical elixir or ritual, but in the heart of day-to-day existence.
What are some habits that you can form that are inspired by the the lifestyles of people who live in the Blue Zones? Let us know in the comments below. Even better, you may find a fellow commenter you'd like to add to your tribe.