Blue Zones: 9 Lifestyle Habits From the Healthiest Places On Earth
Though the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78 years, there are also more than 70,000 Americans who have surpassed their 100th birthday. A few years ago, National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner wondered: what’s the centenarian secret? So Buettner and National Geographic teamed up with the world’s leading demographers, medical researchers, anthropologists, epidemiologists and longevity experts to crack the code of living—and living well—past a hundred.
The team found five small-but-distinct areas around the world in which there were statistically significant pockets of people over 100 years old. Culturally and geographically, these areas, which would come to be known as the world’s Blue Zones, had very little in common. Barbagia, hidden away in the mountainous highlands of interior Sardinia, had the most men who lived to be over 100 years old. Ikaria, an Aegean Island in Greece, had had exceptionally low rates for middle-age mortality and dementia—as did the folks living on Costa Rica’s tranquil Nicoya Peninsula.
The inland southern California community of Loma Linda is home to the country’s highest population of Seventh Day Adventists, who tend to live an average of 10 years longer than the rest of their countrymen and women. And on the Japanese island of Okinawa, women over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world. Fascinated by these findings, Buettner’s “longevity dream team” looked for evidence-based common denominators. Now known as the “Power 9®,” these factors could help YOU live longer and better, too.
1. Natural Movement
Buettner’s team found that one of the most critical contributors to longevity was natural movement, as part of daily doings. As a whole, Blue Zone populations don’t go to the gym or yoga studio—or even jog through the forest—to “work out.” Rather, they live in environments, often without mechanical conveniences, that encourage physical exercise. They carry water, work in the yard and walk into town on a daily basis.
2. Sense of Purpose
According to the team’s research, simply having a sense of purpose—a compelling, conscious reason to get up in the morning—can add seven years to your life expectancy! Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” the Okinawan word is “igikai.” In any language, it translates to a longer, more purposeful life.
3. Daily Downshift
While leading a simpler life can obviously contribute to a calmer demeanor, it’s not as if stress is completely absent from Blue Zones. The difference, Buettner’s team found, is that Blue Zone populations are deeply committed to daily routines and rituals that help deactivate such stressors. Ikarians take naps. Sardinians do happy hour. Adventists pray, while Okinawans take a few moments to commune with their ancestors.
4. The 80% Rule
Spoiler alert: diet and weight have a profound effect on longevity. Blue Zone populations are immune to crash diets and so-called cleanses, for one simple reason—they don’t need them. Why? Across all five regions, researchers found that the longest-lived people stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. Okinawans actually speak the mantra “hara hachi bu” (belly 80% full) prior to every meal, as a reminder. Most Blue Zoners also eat their smallest and last meal in the late afternoon, rather than their largest.
5. The Plant Slant
Legumes, including black, lentil, soy and fava beans, are the heart of the Blue Zone diet—rounded out by plenty of locally farmed fruits and vegetables. Meat, typically pork, is consumed in small amounts (3–4 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards) about five times per month, along with small amounts of dairy and whole grains. Processed foods, which make up the bulk of the western diet, are rarely eaten.
6. Wine O’Clock
With the exception of Seventh Day Adventists, who eschew alcohol as part of their religion, Blue Zone populations drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Multiple studies outside the Blue Zone research have suggested that moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers; ideal consumption is 1–2 glasses per day, in the presence of good food and friends. Call it additional evidence in support of the daily downshift.
7. Spiritual Space
Of the 263 centenarians that were part of Buettner’s study, all but five belonged to some kind of faith-based community. Supplemental research seems to support this hypothesis; recent findings from the 75,000 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study found that women who participated in some kind of weekly religious community activity, like a church service, had a 33% lower mortality rate, lower rates of depression and lower likelihood of being a smoker—as well as higher rates of optimism and social support.
8. Family First
Buettner’s team also found that healthy centenarians were surrounded by multiple generations of close-knit family, living either nearby or in the same home. Blue Zone populations are typically committed to a single life partner (+3 years of life expectancy), and dedicated to spending quality time with their children. These cultures also tend to be hands-on caretakers for aging parents and grandparents, which reduces the incidence of disease as well as mortality rates for children in the home.
9. Friend Framework
Whether by choice or by birth, the centenarians Buettner studied all belonged to small, incredibly tight-knit social circles. Okinawans call these “moiais”: groups of five friends that are committed to supporting one another for life. Outside research backs up the “right tribe” thesis as well; the Framingham Heart Study found that happiness—along with smoking, obesity, loneliness and other conditions—is contagious.
How high do YOU score for compliance with the Power 9®? Check our Poynt of View blog regularly for tons of healthy-living tips, PLUS more ways to earn Poynts for your healthy choices every day.