If you’re like many people, you might be feeling as though you’re just “getting by” after the upheaval brought about by the pandemic. Fortunately, we can choose to follow the example of others who have embraced life-enhancing strategies that have been shown to help renew and sustain lives that are marked by healthy vigor, meaning, growth and satisfaction.
The Blue Zones
In 1999, researcher Dan Buettner set out to discover the secrets of people who live in the Blue Zones, which are areas in the world where inhabitants are living well and living long, with an impressive number of people living into their nineties and beyond. The blue zones are comprised of five regions:
- Ikaria, Greece
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Sardinia, Italy
- Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, California, USA
During his research, Buettner discovered that not only was longevity common in these areas, but there was also an absence of many of the chronic illnesses, such as obesity, and heart disease, that plague many other cultures in the world. The people also spent less time in sedentary behaviors and seemed to experience less stress. Remarkably, these populations don’t rely on public health messages to “eat less, move more;” rather, their health and longevity is directly related to their lifestyles. Inhabitants of the blue zones live in environments that make it possible for them to live their best lives by moving naturally, connecting to their “right tribe” and eating foods that are largely unprocessed, seasonal and fresh. Buettner identified nine traits that contribute to blue zone longevity, which he has termed the Power 9.
- Move Naturally: The world’s longest-living people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly encourage regular movement without having to think about it.
- Purpose: The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida, which roughly translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose says Buettner, may extend one’s life expectancy by up to seven years.
- Downshift: Even people in the blue zones experience stress, which can lead to the chronic inflammation that is associated with age-related diseases. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
- 80% Rule: People who live in these areas stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and usually don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
- Plant Slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month, and serving sizes are 3-4 oz., which is about the size of a deck of cards.
- Wine @ 5: People in all blue zones (except Adventists in Loma Linda) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. The US Department of Health and Human Services defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Belong: Most people in the blue zones belong to some type of faith-based community (denomination doesn’t seem to matter). Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month could add as much as four to 14 years to one’s life expectancy.
- Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home. This practice also lowers the disease and mortality rates of children in the home, too. They commit to a life partner (which can add up to three years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love.
- Right Tribe: People who live long healthy lives chose—or were born into—social circles that support healthy behaviors. Research shows that smoking, obesity, happiness and even loneliness is contagious. The social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
Using the Wisdom of Blue Zones in Your Life
Since there are only five documented Blue Zones in this study, you might wonder how to improve the quality of your life, health and overall well-being in your current location. You can begin incorporating any, or all, of the following lifestyle strategies:
- Moving your body is an important factor for day-to-day functioning, but it doesn’t have to be excruciating. Moderate-intensity activities such as walking and gardening offer substantial health benefits, particularly when they include a social component.
- Identify your passions and life’s purpose with these questions: What are my gifts? What do I care about? Why do I get up in the morning? Answering these questions may be the first step toward achieving greater peace of mind, contentment and happiness.
- Consider volunteering for a cause you care deeply about, as this may provide a sense of being part of something bigger and evoke a sense of purpose in caring for people or causes outside of yourself.
- Cultivate friendships, rekindle past relationships and take advantage of opportunities at work or among neighbors to expand your friendship base. Friendships can have a huge impact on mental health and happiness. Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, prevent loneliness and isolation, and may even strengthen physical health.
- Commit to lifelong learning because knowledge is power and can boost brain health, particularly as we age. There are endless opportunities for learning and development, and maintaining curiosity and intellectual humility can be one of life’s most rewarding pursuits.
- Keeping a journal or writing your own life’s story can be therapeutic and can give you a perspective on what you have achieved. It may also offer the opportunity to address unresolved issues or simply a place to express gratitude on a regular basis.
- Artistic pursuits and art-based activities are effective in improving mood and overall mental health. Set aside time to play or listen to music, read a book, sing, paint or dance, for example.
Developing positive self-care habits that lead to improved emotional well-being and physical health is a dynamic, fluid process. Allow yourself to make changes slowly and let go of trying to be perfect. Taking that first step will help you move beyond coping and become your best self.