I intend on living a long, happy life.
It would be cool to be a great-grandparent, for instance. I’ve also got many things I want to do. Write books, learn new things, start businesses and non-profits, help my community. So many plans, so little time.
Age is not the limiting factor. Health is.
So how can I live a long and happy life? Dan Buettner, a National Geographic writer, believes he knows the answer. He founded the organization Quest Network, Inc. to conduct a study of “Blue Zones” – regions of the world where there are sizable populations that live active lives past one hundred years of age.
There are currently five known Blue Zones in the world:
- Sardina, Italy
- Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, CA, USA
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Icaria, Greece
Buettner and his organization studied these regions and discovered four key traits that all share, regardless of geography, culture, religion, or other factors.
- Move Naturally
- Right Outlook
- Eat Wisely
People living in Blue Zones don’t run marathons or lift heavy weights in gyms. They don’t sit in front of the TV or computers a lot either. Instead, they take a lot of walks. They climb up stairs. They hike up mountains. They even tend gardens, which require daily manual labor.
The Sardinians live on hillsides. So to get around, many walk up and down these hills all the time, even those in their eighties. Many Okinawans maintain personal gardens that they cultivate with pride. It’s not uncommon to see elders plowing and raking and pulling out weeds.
The trick is to do something active every day that you enjoy. That way, being active isn’t a chore; it is something you look forward to. And that’s why it works.
If you love doing cardio at the gym, then more power to you. Otherwise, take a walk around the block. Walk to the local grocery store instead of driving. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Take a parking spot further away from the entrance of the mall so you have to walk a bit. Play sports with friends. Play the Nintendo Wii. Do something active everyday.
Blue Zone inhabitants maintain a healthy perspective on life. They take time to slow down and relax from their hectic schedules. They use healthy outlets to vent their stress. They take problems in stride.
It’s not that they live boring, unexciting lives. Loma Linda is the home of a large medical university and medical community. Being a doctor is far from relaxing. The majority of these residents – those that regularly live long, active lives, at least – are also Seventh-day Adventists, a Christian denomination. Their religion aids in their ability to find peace with their frustrations.
Aside from mechanisms to dispel stress, Blue Zone inhabitants also deeply believe they have a purpose in life. That purpose could be as small as the Okinawan fisherman who sees his purpose is to fish so he can feed his family, or the Okinawan grandmother who knows her purpose is to care for her great-great-grandchildren. Religion also imbues a deep sense of purpose to Seventh-day Adventists.
Many don’t retire. They keep on doing what they enjoy doing, because they believe it is their purpose, their reason to get up every day.
Look for healthy outlets for your stress. Some use exercise, some take walks, and some create art to find relief. For others, it’s spirituality, religion, or their family and community.
A sense of purpose is also equally important. If you don’t have a reason to wake up every day and stay healthy, then find one. Spirituality and religion fill this hole for many. Family and community fill this for others. Still others find their purpose in their work or art. And sometimes your purpose isn’t bestowed upon you; it is something you go out and determine for yourself.
Those in Blue Zones eat healthy food in moderation. By healthy food, I mean their diets include a lot of vegetables and little processed food. Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarians. Okinawans eat lots of fresh fish. Sardinians consume homemade food. Each community has a different meal mix, though all contain a lot of vegetables and little processed food.
By moderation, I mean they don’t overeat. They don’t serve huge, American-sized portions. The Okinawans even eat from small plates as a means to minimize overeating. Others take breaks between servings. Since it takes several minutes before the feeling of satiation hits your stomach, taking a break can curb the amount you eat.
Include more vegetables in your diet. Decrease the amount of processed food and fast food from your daily intake as much as possible, or remove it altogether. You don’t need vitamin supplements as long as you eat a wide variety of vegetables, grains, and meats.
And perhaps even more importantly, reduce your portion sizes. Eat from small bowls. Take breaks between servings. You may find yourself feeling full without the usual volume you consume.
The last common aspect of all Blue Zone elders is their sense of family and community. To them, family comes first. Grandparents aren’t shut away in nursing homes. Respect increases with age, so the eldest are given the most respect.
They also feel a sense of belonging within their communities. Friendships endure throughout lifetimes. A person can count on a friend in time of need, and give selflessly when that friend is in need. You’ve got my back, I’ve got your back.
These tight bonds are formed with people of similar values as well. Everyone in a particular community shares the same core values of enjoyable activities (walks, hikes, etc), a healthy outlook (able to vent with each other, a feeling of purpose), healthy diets (natural foods in moderation), and a sense of belonging.
If you’ve been estranged from your family, consider making amends. Be the bigger person and take the first step at healing that bond. In cases where that’s totally impossible, foster the friendships you have, especially with those that share the same values. Consider being a part of a healthy tight-knit community, such as an activity group, special interest group, religious group, etc.
Is This Possible?
For some, this news is obvious to you. But for others, this may seem entirely impossible. How such a lifestyle can be followed in today’s society? I hear you. I know it’s not easy.
I don’t think it’s impossible either. It just takes some extra effort and a lot of discipline. Moving naturally and eating wisely are the easiest ones to do first, since they involve changes in behavior. The tough part is sticking to the new behavior long enough for it to become habit.
Having the right outlook and connecting to others are much tougher. The first involves changing a mental model that’s been ingrained for years. The second involves both behavioral and mental changes.
Part of having the right outlook is having healthy outlets for stress. This can include exercising, talking to trusted friends, or creating art. There are numerous self-help websites and books you can turn to for more ideas as well.
The other part of the right outlook is a sense of purpose. If you can’t find an easy answer, you are probably waiting for that purpose to come to you. Let me correct that misconception: that is not going to happen. Not everyone is lucky enough to be given their purpose. You need to go out and find your purpose. Create one. Look for something you believe in, whether it is a family member, a vocation, or a cause. As long as it allows you to follow these other traits and doesn’t harm others, embrace it as the reason you get up every morning.
Finding a community that accepts you is probably the toughest one to achieve. If you weren’t born into a tight-knit family or community, you will have to work hard to become a part of a healthy community. However, it’s worth the effort. Once you are in a good community, a sense of purpose will almost certainly come to you.
How do you find such a community? Church groups are an obvious source. Activity groups and special interest groups are another, though not all will give you an encompassing sense of community. Some people join such groups just to do the activity, then return to their own communities without further involvement in the group.
Neighborhood-based communities are also a good source. There are “gated communities” (a set of houses enclosed within gates) that try to engender such a sense of belonging, not only for goodwill, but for protection too (crime is less common in such neighborhoods).
For some, their work can also provide a viable community, though like activity and special interest groups, not all of the members may be willing to put in the same level of commitment as you. To them, it’s just a job, not a community.
I am lucky that I follow and have a lot of these traits. Hopefully I can continue to foster them throughout my long, happy life, and vice versa. For many, I had to work hard to create them. But once they’ve become engrained in my life, following them is as easy as eating and breathing.
Want to see more? You can watch Buettner’s talk at a TEDxTC conference on September 2009 about his study of Blue Zones. It’s a fascinating talk.
Now go live long and prosper. And talk a walk around the block while you’re at it.