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Secrets to longevity from the Blue Zones

POSTED: August 25, 2017 11:01 a.m.
Emily Fonnesbeck/

Blue Zones are small pockets of populations around the globe that live the longest and healthiest, reaching age 100 at extraordinary rates and enjoying a high quality of life. Here are the nine characteristics they share and how you can do the same.

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We can learn a lot about health and longevity from the Blue Zones. As a health professional who wishes to help others find long-lasting and sustainable wellness, it seems only natural to educate others on what we see happening in this areas.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, Blue Zones are small pockets of populations around the globe that live the longest and healthiest, reaching 100 years old at extraordinary rates and enjoying a high quality of life. Currently, there are five groups who meet these criteria and are located in Loma Linda, California (Seventh Day Adventists community); Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica and Ikaria, Greece.

The nine characteristics these groups share are as follows:

  1. Move Naturally: Individuals in these zones have lifestyles that encourage movement regularly throughout the day. They don’t go to gyms or run marathons, which of course isn’t to say you couldn’t, but rather work in their garden, walk vs. drive, etc. Here in the United States, it’s more common to exercise once during the day and then be much less active the remainder of the day. For those of you who work desk jobs, you could mimic this continual movement through something called “exercise snacks.” Set a timer to go off each hour as a reminder to take a 5-minute walk/stretch break.
  2. Purpose: A sense of purpose is found to be worth up to seven years in life expectancy. It may be helpful to ask yourself these questions: Why do you wake up in the morning? Do you engage in meaningful work and find purpose in what you spend your time doing? This principle is of great importance to those living in Blue Zones.
  3. Down Shift: Resting or finding time to relax and rejuvenate has been identified as a major contributor to the health and well-being to those in Blue Zones. While we may see this as something we don’t have time for, they see it as a priority. Stress is a source of chronic inflammation and lower levels of both stress and inflammation are attributed to their longevity.
  4. 80 Percent Rule: This characteristic is particularly true for those living in Okinawa, Japan. The mantra “hara hachi bu” is repeated before meals to remind them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. In addition, these groups eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, largest meal midday and they don’t eat after the evening meal. While it may not be necessary to follow this exact pattern, it speaks to the importance of fueling yourself well during the day and honoring hunger and fullness levels. Avoid skipping meals, which can lead to getting overly hungry and possible overeating.
  5. Plant Slant: The centenarian diet emphasizes whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It’s estimated about 75 percent of their plate comes from the ground. They eat high fiber meals that are rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. Animal products are included but beans are the cornerstone of their meals. It should be noted that these groups do not drink special shakes, take any supplements or track their food/calories in any way. They rely on wholesome foods, without being overly preoccupied with what or how much, using their intuitive signals of hunger and fullness to guide eating. Also, meals are a time to rest and connect with food and loved ones; they aren't rushed through or multitasked.
  6. Wine @ 5: People in some Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. They drink one or two glasses per day, with friends and/or with food. It’s common in media outlets to hear longevity associated with red wine, dark chocolate and olive oil. This list of nine characteristics hopefully helps you see the big picture.
  7. Belong: All but five of 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to a faith-based community. Research shows attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy. Ultimately, feeling a part of something bigger than yourself can increase quality and length of years.
  8. Loved Ones First: Blue Zones are known for their deep appreciation for family. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (lowers 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 they invest in their children with time and love.
  9. Right Tribe: These individuals choose — or are born into — social circles that support physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.
The point of sharing this information with you is not to encourage you to move to a Blue Zone. Instead, the intent is to give you evidenced-based principles for how to create your own Blue Zone, wherever you live. Supporting your health and well-being will be holistic and will include stress reduction, meaningful work, healthy relationships, natural movement and wholesome, satisfying meals.
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