Lessons from the blue zones
This longevity appears to be a product of the local lifestyle – what people are eating, how they spend their days, and even who they surround themselves with all play a part. Researchers identify diet, exercise and not smoking as important factors, but so are community connections and having a sense of purpose3.
The good news is these things can be made part of almost anyone’s day, providing an achievable path to a longer, healthier life.
Diet has a crucial role in our health. While the people of Sardinia probably aren’t preparing the same cuisine as their long-lived Okinawan peers, the types of food – and how they’re eaten – have something in common.
Diets within the blue zones tend to include more plant-based meals. Lentils and beans (especially of the soy, broad bean and black bean varieties) feature heavily, with most centenarians in these regions reducing their meat intake to five times a month.
In addition, these long-lived folk don’t overeat. While it may be hard to turn down a second helping of your favourite meal, one secret to a long life may lie in eating until you’re only 80% full.
Working out naturally
Many people complain that they don’t have time to fit exercise into their busy days. For some, the simplest way to keep in shape is by incorporating regular trips to the gym, or training for special events like a marathon to stay motivated. But that takes effort.
Blue zone residents, however, get most of their exercise from their usual daily routine, instead of in addition to it. This incidental exercise comes in many forms, from tending to a garden as part of their housework, to walking around town instead of running errands in a car.
It really comes down to sitting less and moving more.
Community is key
The people we surround ourselves with have an immense impact on how we feel, and researchers suggest it may also affect longevity. Blue zone inhabitants typically invest a lot of their time and energy into their friends and families.
In many cases, families in blue zones live near (or even with) elderly relatives so they can take care of them. Older relatives play with and look after younger generations, forming lasting bonds.
Blue zone locals also keep a tight-knit group of loyal friends, who will support them through life’s ups and downs.
Mindset and outlook
A positive attitude is another attribute shared across the five regions identified as blue zones. People living in blue zones frequently told researchers they had found a purpose in their lives which helped them stay positive and motivated.
Although it may seem abstract, research suggests having a purpose in life can add as much as seven years to someone’s life expectancy4.
Blue zone natives also have different ways of handling stress. While stress is a natural and sometimes helpful biological response to challenges, unproductive or prolonged stress can have knock-on consequences for your health and wellbeing5. Stress can lead to chronic inflammation in the body, which has been associated with every major age-related disease6.
Within blue zones, locals have developed healthy ways to manage stress. These vary from place to place, with Okinawans devoting time to remembering their ancestors and the Costa Ricans de-stressing by taking a nap7.
Living it up
So, should we all move to Sardinia or Okinawa if we want to live longer? Obviously not. But the similar lifestyles enjoyed by the world’s longest living people highlight the effect healthy habits have on life expectancy.
Incorporating even some of these behaviours into our daily lives can help us reap the health benefits enjoyed by those in the blue zones.
This could be as simple as eating fewer meat dishes each month, walking home one day each week or joining a local community group to build connections with other people.