There are many models, roadmaps, blueprints for happier, healthier lives. One that I frequently come back to is the Power 9 from the Blue Zones research. I find it gives me a calming view into an enviable lifestyle. Whether I can activate it in my life is another question, but I like talking about it.
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 it was about the lives of these communities was 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. They are now referred to as the Power 9.
I refer to the Power 9 regularly in talks I give on self-care and wellbeing. When I am talking to a large group, I can’t individualise the wellbeing recommendations to each person in the room, so I rely on wellbeing models that consist of elements with wide relevance. The Power 9 is one such model. When it comes to mental health specifically, I like the Big Five model.
I personally find these 9 factors interesting (and sometimes uncomfortable) to reflect on because I can see significant gaps between my lifestyle (a product of the culture in which I’ve been raised and the choices I make) and the lifestyle of those in the Blue Zones. Some feel achievable 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 understanding the foundations of a healthy and happy life.
As you read this post, you may choose to reflect on how close or far away you feel your lifestyle is to the Power 9. Don’t be self-critical if you feel you are falling short in some way. Remember that those living in the Blue Zones are (and were) living as their communities have lived for generations. They didn’t specifically choose these lifestyles for health reasons. These lifestyles were a product of their cultures. It’s unlikely that you can simply replace your existing way of being with theirs. But you may be able to apply some of the principles to make meaningful changes to your life with health and wellbeing as a focus.
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/
Growing up, I was taught that physical activity was 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 must deliberately prioritise in your day because much of the day is otherwise sedentary. For example, my work means 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 can 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 can be an underlying pressure to go out and sample as much of the world as possible 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’ve certainly agonised regularly on what my ‘purpose’ is, whilst often ignoring the people and tasks right in front of me.
In the absence of being part of a small community where one’s purpose is connected to one’s role in the community, the question of your purpose might need to be addressed more reflectively. 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 (downshifting)
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.
A modern figure who talks about this regularly is Andrew Huberman who uses the term non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). NSDR refers to a collection of activities (e.g. breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga nidra, self-hypnosis) that have the unique capacity of providing both a calming/relaxation effect, along with a rejuvenation of focus capacity. Huberman recommends that we build such activities into our day, so we are keeping stress managed. An example might be 20 minutes of meditation between study sessions.
I used to think that finding relaxing activities in my life would be easy, but it has actually taken me quite a bit of trial and error to discover what helps. And I still reckon I’ve got a long way to go. There are activities that I used to think were relaxing (e.g. watching YouTube), but when I observed myself more closely in that activity, I ended up feeling more drained than energised. In contrast, a morning walk, which feels initially more effortful, is actually very good at lowering my stress levels.
As for what types of activities reduce your stress levels and energise you, that is for you to determine. But play close attention to your choices and whether they truly bust stress or subtly make it worse.
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 overall 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. It is like their overall philosophy on life guides healthy choices and decisions on a moment-to-moment basis. Their routines include continuous callouts to the best aspects of their nature and of those around them as well.
It isn’t easy to just upgrade one’s life philosophy. The life philosophy we each hold is a function of our early life experiences and cultural influences. They’re definitely malleable but not always easily. The mechanism by which some do this is therapy. In a therapeutic relationship we find a safe space to explore how we see the world, identify where it may be holding us back and experiment with different perspectives. It can be an intense process.
Something that may be a little more immediately actionable is to build routines that include activities that bring out the best versions of you. Perhaps it is certain people, places, activities where you find your outlook on life feels calmer, more focused, more grounded. It is about knowing that certain contexts bring out the best in your thinking. I find my mind is calmer and more focused when I garden or do some art, but it can be chaotic and unfocused when scrolling news items on my phone. Lesson? – spend more time in the garden, and less on my phone. Certain people elicit wiser, funnier versions of me whilst others elicit neurotic stressed versions. Lesson? – spend more time with the former.
If you aren’t sure what situations bring out calmer versions of you, try some common-sense things. Spend 20 minutes watching the sunset, rather than the TV. Grab a coffee with a few different friends and note what emerges. Mix up your usual study places and see if any resonate more with you. As you accumulate these observations, you are revising your map of the world, your lifes philosphy.
80% Food Rule
Blue zoners don’t overeat. Damn them!!
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 (again with a focus on food intake in the first part of the 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, legumes, 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.
One of the best resources I have found for better understanding the specifics of a plant-based diet is Nutrition Facts – https://nutritionfacts.org/
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 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, 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 (belong)
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 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.
It might be the case that you don’t need a faith-based community per se, but one with a healthy mission.
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 and invite them to share their lives with you.
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”?
Adults often use it 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.
I remember being super impressed that some people from Blue Zones have friendships that have lasted over 80 years.
I want to finish with a reflection on an interview I heard with Dan Buettner, the guy who kicked off this whole Blue Zones endeavor. I think it was one of his conversations with Rich Roll.
I worry that I will misrepresent what he said, but what I took from the interview was that whilst the Power 9 is a decent blueprint for how individuals might build longer, healthier lives, we can’t expect individuals to shoulder all the responsibility. If you create a toxic food environment but then expect each individual to use willpower and discipline to keep eating healthy, they are just going to fail. If you want people to move more, but you build communities based around driving, people will take the easier path.
The power of Blue Zones is not just in its ability to give individuals some longevity insights, but to give communities a roadmap for how they might restructure the communities to support individuals to activate the Power 9. That is why there is now a pillar of Blue Zones work that is focused on ‘transforming wellbeing at the neighborhood, city and county levels’.
I sometimes consider this in the context of Flinders being a community, and what community-level actions we might take to support everyone in being able to better activate the Power 9 in their own life. I think the Good Vibes Experiment, a positive mental health campaign was a good start, but we can do more. Have thoughts on what we might do? Would love you to share them in the comments below.
Now 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 do love talking about this stuff and slowly but surely, I push my life a little closer to a Blue Zone.
For more information on the Blue Zones research – visit the website – https://www.bluezones.com/