Many years back I read the book “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer” by Dan Buettner.
The book chronicled Dan’s experiences of visiting parts of the world, where it was perfectly normal for people to live well into their 90’s and over 100 years of age.
Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
The purpose of Dan’s visits (and those of his subsequent team) was to understand what was it about the lives of these communities that was so health producing. What was it about their lives that helped them thrive well into old age, and well beyond the normal life expectancy of other regions?
The research of Dan and his team identified 9 common factors that connected these communities, and seemed to account for the remarkable wellbeing of the individuals and families within these communities.
I find these 9 factors interesting to reflect on, especially when compared to my life, and what I deem to be the standard ‘modern civilised western lifestyle’. Some feel very close and within my grasp. Others feel alien to me and reflect a life I can’t really imagine living. Regardless, they satiate my hunger for perspectives on what constitutes a ‘life worth living’.
As you read this post, reflect on how close or far away your existing lifestyle is, to these evidence-based but still idealised notions of the healthy, long life.
If close, does your experience tell you these are valid?
If far away, are these principles something that you could take and use to improve your life?
This post is made possible by the fact that the Blue Zones team have created a website that provides a lot of free and useable information. I highly recommend it – https://www.bluezones.com/
My life, and I imagine the lives of many position physical activity as something you ‘schedule’ into your day. You ‘go for a run’ in the morning, or ‘visit the gym’ at night. Physical activity is something you have to deliberately position in your day because much of the day is otherwise quite sedentary, for example, I spend most of my day on the computer writing.
Peeps in blue zones however, tend to be engaged in low level but consistent physical activity for most of the day. Whether this is because they lack some of the ‘conveniences’ of modern society that mean everyday tasks (e.g. obtaining and preparing food, gardening) are more physically intensive, or their paid work is more physically intensive (e.g. fisherman, farmer), their lives are set up in a way to encourage constant natural movement.
Mimicking this can be hard when your primary activity is sedentary (e.g. study), but there are ways. I use a standing desk at work, so that my sitting time is reduced. You can also set up small ‘inconveniences’ in your life that require you to move, such as getting off the bus a few stops earlier, or purchasing groceries on an as-needs basis by walking around to the shops. Finally, you can develop hobbies that require movement. For example, gardening is my favourite past-time.
Have a purpose
Having a ‘purpose’ means having a reason for waking up in the morning. Peeps in blue zones tend to derive their purpose from their role within their community. Those who farmed provided the food and sustenance for their peers. Those who tended to the home were central in keeping families working well. These people hold their roles, often for a lifetime. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of choice for them in their roles, but they embrace those roles whole-heartedly.
In the west, we’re typically invited to consider a wider range of possibilities when ‘finding our purpose’ which can be a mixed blessing. Rather than finding purpose in our roles at work or family, there seems to be an underlying pressure to go out and sample as much of the world as possible (e.g. travel), in the hope of finding that one thing, (‘your calling’) that will be the thing that defines you. The freedom to find one’s purpose amongst a wide range of options is liberating for some, but paralysing for others. I certainly spent many years in my 20’s and 30’s quite confused about what my purpose was.
In this kind of environment, the question of ‘purpose’ needs to be addressed a little more deliberately. I’d start by asking yourself if you have, at least for the time being, found your purpose in your studies, in being a good friend and family member, in being an active member of the community. We shouldn’t be too quick to assume that simply being a good and productive person in your family and community is a sign of a lack of purpose or ambition. We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss our role in the present moment as being unworthy of our aspirations.
But if you’ve tried to develop a sense of purpose in your current life, and struggled, try these reflection exercises by Richard Leider. They encourage you to consider purpose from multiple different angles: gifts, deathbed reflections, calculating remaining time, noting where your energy lies, asking others, noticing when you are curious, identifying models and mentors, what do you care about. Doing so can help you discover your purpose within the realms of your existing experience.
Low stress routines
Peeps in blue zones work hard (see ‘move naturally’ above), but they balance this well with stress reducing activities. They have specific routines in place that reduce stress: remember ancestors, pray, nap, happy hour.
The ‘routine’ part is the important part. They don’t wait until they are stressed, and then implement stress reducing activities. Those stress-busting activities are built into their everyday routines.
I can’t stress how important this aspect is. If we want to experience the benefits of most health-producing activities, they need to become part of our daily, weekly, monthly routines. You don’t get physically fit from just the occasional gym session. You don’t get mentally fit from the occasional meditation. To realise the full impact of these activities, they need to become part of your life.
As for what types of activities reduce your stress levels and energise you, that is for you to determine. You can check out my self-care guide for a few examples and starting points, but I’m confident you already have some idea of what relaxes and rejuvenates you. Have you got those activities built into your life? If not, why?
Low stress mental routines
The other impression I got from reading the blue zones stuff was that people from blue zones tend to have an outlook on life that is stress reducing. They focus on the present moment. They appreciate laughter and connection. They seek and embrace the beauty of the world in which they live. They speak their mind and don’t hold grudges or resentments.
The key here is a deliberate decision to put oneself in situations that promote a healthy way of thinking. Spending 20 minutes watching the sunset, rather than the TV. Expressing difficulties with others before they become resentments. Making sure you spend time with those people that make you laugh.
It is about knowing that certain contexts bring out the best in your thinking. I find my mind is calm and focused when I garden, but find it is chaotic and unfocused when scrolling news items on my phone. Lesson? – spend more time in the garden, and less on my phone.
Build up your routine with activities that not only invigorate your body, but also your mind.
80% Food Rule
Blue zoners don’t overeat.
They don’t find themselves, like me, in front of the TV, covered in potato chip crumbs, looking guiltily at the empty packet.
They eat mindfully and stop at the first signs of fullness. They are perfectly comfortable knowing what is an appropriately sized meal portion for themselves.
Translating this out of the blue zones is actually quite simple, but certainly in stark opposition to how I approach my meals. I tend to eat when in front of the TV or computer, so the eating is done mindlessly. I can quickly find I am way too full, having eaten, without real consideration for what or how much I have eaten.
So if you want to eat like a blue zoner….
- don’t eat in front of the TV or computer screen
- prepare yourself reasonably sized portions and don’t eat beyond those portions
- be thankful for the food you have
- savour and notice each bite
- when hungry outside of meal times, try a glass of water or tea drunk slowly as a first response
- save your bigger meals for during the day, with lighter meals at night
- consider intermittent fasting – e.g. going for 12+ hours without food each day
Whilst the 80% rule describes how to eat, ‘Plant Slant’ describes what to eat.
Blue zoners eat diets that are predominantly plant based: whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables.
Meat and dairy are eaten but generally in much smaller quantities, more as a garnish or flavour enhancer than the centrepiece of the meal. Compare this with the average pub schnitzel in Australia:
For most blue zoners, by nature of where they live, their exposure to highly processed foods is minimised. They make their own breads and pastas. And this works in their favour. Processed foods, meats and sugary snacks don’t form any real part of their diet. This is possibly the hardest part of their diet to mimic as the food environment in Australia means low nutrition, high calorie processed foods are readily available and marketed as cheaper and more time efficient than cooking with primary ingredients.
So the ‘alcohol’ part probably makes you happy, but the ‘moderate’ part might not.
Blue zoners do drink, but it is typically home-made, high quality, and only 1-2 glasses per day max.
Drinking is done to enhance socialising with friends and family and is accompanied by healthy food (ingredients in wine can help with absorption of some nutrients).
Binge drinking isn’t a thing for peeps in the blue zones. They also drink for pleasure and taste, not to escape or avoid.
You might have noticed that Australians have a slightly weird relationship with alcohol. On one hand, Australia is known for being a great wine and beer producer, with some of the finest wines coming from Australian vineyards. Wine and brewing and distillation are taken seriously here in Australia, and the quality of our alcohol reflects this. This reflects our more healthy ‘relationship’ with alcohol.
However Australians are also known for being heavy drinkers, and our intake of alcohol is often well outside the recommended guidelines. We celebrate feats of alcohol consumption and binge drinking is considered by many as a normal rite of passage, and acceptable weekend behaviour. This reflects our unhealthy ‘relationship’ with alcohol.
The blue zones research tells us that alcohol itself is not the enemy, but for longevity and health, we need to redefine our relationship with alcohol to one that is based on appreciating taste, flavour and celebrating the company of friends and family.
Faith Based Community
Most blue zoners have faith of a spiritual or religious variety.
Having faith can be beneficial in a number of ways:
- It connects you to something higher than yourself and your daily struggles
- It helps provide meaning around events that are difficult (e.g. grief and loss)
- It commonly involves rituals that require you to reflect positively on your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you
- It helps you connect and feel a sense of belonging with those who share your faith and who are looking out for each other
- Most faith-based systems of thought encourage positive prosocial behaviour – i.e. looking after your fellow humans. You are encouraged to lead a ‘good life’ and be grateful for the things you have
So what if religion or spirituality are not a big part of your life? Can you get similar benefits? These questions are important to me because I am not part of a faith-based community.
I think the answer is ‘yes’ assuming you can find a group that shares similar characteristics with faith-based groups.
For example, volunteering with aid agencies can help you find connection in a setting in which the group is trying to improve the welfare of others.
Connecting with groups that engage in nature-based interactions (e.g. gardening groups, hiking/camping groups) is a way to connect with others in the context of appreciating the the beauty of nature (a form of spirituality).
Working for a company that has prosocial goals, consistent with yours is another way to find a sense of belonging amongst a group with a higher purpose.
Loved Ones First
Ok. Here are the basics.
- Move your parents, and your in-laws into your house with you.
- Commit to a life partner (preferably a decent one)
- Invest time in your children – assuming you have some
This probably sounds a bit confronting if you are in your early 20’s, at university, away from home and enjoying the freedom.
But don’t stress. Just focus instead on prioritising time with family. And no, prioritising doesn’t mean sending them an email every now and then. It means making time to visit and be with them, to share your life with them.
Do you have to prioritise anyone who is even vaguely genetically related to you? – No, it simply means working out who your most valued family members are, and ensuring you keep them close (with their permission of course). If separated by distance (e.g. international students), use technology like Skype and Facetime to feel closer.
Have you ever heard the term “hanging out with the wrong crowd”?
It is often used by adults to explain the behaviour of young people who have gone off the rails a bit – “he started hanging out with the wrong crowd”.
To live a long and healthy life, you need to find the ‘right crowd’. Friends that bring out the best in you and support you over the long-term.
You might already have these best friends in your life. If that is the case, do your best to hold onto them. If not, you’ll need to make a decent investment of time to make close friends.
Close friends can influence us in a number of ways that impact our health:
- they encourage us to engage in healthy behaviours (e.g. catch up for a walk)
- they provide practical and emotional support during difficult times
- they provide encouragement when we try something new
- they know us well enough to point out when we are being a complete douche
- they are an avenue for fun and laughter, and thus stress reduction
- they will, if asked, wrestle donuts out of our hands when we look like we are going to fail on our diet goal
Your tribe doesn’t need to be big, or flashy, or cool, or ‘the popular kids’. It just needs to be a group that has your best interests at heart, and reciprocally, you have their best interests at heart.
Based on my current behaviour – I don’t think I’ll live to 100. I don’t follow the 80% rule. I don’t have a tribe. I don’t have religion, and my alcohol consumption is best described as ‘a little high’.
But I can see in the blue zones research an aspirational lifestyle – one richer in meaning and connection. And I am taking steps to try to move towards such a lifestyle.
- I now meditate regularly and see this as a habit I will continue
- My diet has improved a lot in the last couple of years. It still has a way to go, but the improvements are there.
- My work gives me a strong sense of meaning and purpose and I wake up each day with a desire to go to work
- I move more as part of my day, through the use of a standing desk, regular lunchtime walk with colleagues, weight training, and gardening on the weekend.
By no means perfect, but a decent start.
How about you?
Does reading this stuff make you think about changes you would make to your own lifestyle?
For more information on the Blue Zones research – visit the website – https://www.bluezones.com/