Secrets to Longevity From the Blue Zones

Have you ever heard of the Blue Zones before?  The information from these areas deeply influences my work.  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.  

Here I quote from the Blue Zones website

In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and the world’s best longevity researchers to identify pockets around the world where people lived measurably better. In these Blue Zones they found that people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. After identifying the world’s Blue Zones, Dan and National Geographic took teams of scientists to each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They found that the lifestyles of all Blue Zones residents shared nine specific characteristics. We call these characteristics the Power 9.

In essence, Blue Zones are small pockets of populations around the globe that live the longest and healthiest. Currently there are 5 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 9 characteristics these groups share are as follows:

1.  Move Naturally: Movement is a natural part of their day.  They don’t have workout routines or set foot in a gym (which of course isn’t to say you couldn’t); their lifestyle is such that encourages physical activity.  We find that movement and activity throughout the day trumps one exercise session followed by lack of activity 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 worth up to an extra 7 years in life expectancy.  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:  Don’t we all seem to be striving for bigger and better by doing MORE?  Down shifting, or finding ways to rest, relax and rejuvenate actually increases productivity.  Overwhelming stress can leave us emotionally and physically exhausted.  You may wish to find ways to help manage stress and set aside time each day or each week to do something that helps you reconnect with yourself.  

4.  80% Rule:  This means to stop eating when 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, I believe 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:  These groups emphasize whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.  It’s estimated that about 75% of their plate comes from the ground.  They eat high fiber meals that are rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.  Meat is eaten on average only 5 times per month and beans are the cornerstone of the centurion diet.  Finally, they fully embrace carbohydrates and fats!

I think 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.  Also, meals are a time to rest and connect with food and loved ones; they aren't rushed through or multitasked.  

Related: Making a Case for Carbohydrates and Fats

6.  Wine @ 5:  People in some Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly.  They drink 1-2 glasses per day, with friends and/or with food.  

It’s common in media outlets to hear longevity associated with red wine, chocolate and olive oil.  This list of 9 characteristics hopefully helps you see the big picture. 

7.  Belong:  All but 5 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 3 years of life expectancy) and they invest in their children with time and love.  Enough said.

9.  Right Tribe:  You know that quote that says you are the average of the 5 people you associate with most?  These Blue Zones take that to heart.  They choose–or are born into–social circles that support physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.

I very much appreciate the data we have on the Blue Zones.  It shows us we can create our own blue zone, that health and wellness is multi-factorial and encourages a holistic approach.  It has very little to do with fixating on numbers, killing yourself at the gym or giving up carbs.  In fact, it is noteworthy that their staple foods are rich in carbohydrates and are often "fear-foods" for dieters: potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rice, etc - these make up the bulk of their meals. They also enjoy olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado, fish (i.e. high fat foods).  I think it’s obvious we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture.  Finding meaning and purpose, cultivating connection, and a healthy dose of pleasure, rest and relaxation (not to be confused with numbing feelings or “zoning out”) are important habits to cultivate if you seek health.  Mealtimes can be a great time to practice!

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD