Lessons From The Blue Zonesby Lacy Kuester MS, MPP, RDNLifestyle
What Are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are regions of the world where a higher proportion of individuals live to become centenarians. There are five such regions: Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California. Epidemiologists, gerontologists, anthropologists, and demographers -- to name just a few of the types of scientists fascinated by the Blue Zone phenomenon -- have studied these regions to try to understand why so many more people there live into their hundreds. What they discovered is that people who live in Blue Zones tend to follow diets and lifestyles that promote physical, emotional, and spiritual health. These, in turn, promote longevity (1). That’s great news because it means you don’t have to move to another part of the planet to live longer. You can get a lot of the same vitality-promoting benefits that people in the Blue Zones do by mimicking their diet and lifestyle practices.
Lessons from the Blue Zones
If you’d already heard of the Blue Zones before this blog post, then it’s likely because you’ve encountered a book, article, or TV interview involving Dan Buettner. Buettner is a researcher who made Blue Zones famous, first with his 2005 article on the topic in National Geographic Magazine and then in his 2008 book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (2). In the nearly 15 years since his first publication on Blue Zones, Buettner has continued to refine his research to find commonalities among these disparate parts of the world. A summary of those practices, which you can incorporate into your own life to promote longevity, are listed below (1, 3):
- Eat a plant-based diet. Residents of the Blue Zones eat plant-based diets with a variety of colorful fruits and veggies at every meal. This gives them tons of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which are beneficial to your health. Meat is consumed sparingly, if ever (vegetarianism is popular among Loma Linda residents). Remember to choose organic produce, grass-fed meats, and pasture-raised poultry and eggs to minimize your toxin exposure, which can be detrimental to your cognitive health.
- Don’t stuff yourself. Blue Zone residents also mind how much they eat. For example, residents of Loma Linda live by the mantra: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. They believe in having a small dinner so as to fully digest before bed. Okinawans, on the other hand, believe in hara hachi bu, the practice of eating until 80% full rather than completely full. They recite this before each meal.
- Manage your stress. Each Blue Zones has a unique practice that helps reduce stress levels. Because stress contributes to chronic disease and cognitive decline, it’s worth taking their lead on this. For example, Okinawans engage in prayers to their ancestors, Sardinians gather for social hours, and Ikarians take daily siestas. Clearly, there is no one right way to cope with your stress. The important thing is that you find a practice that works for you.
- Find your purpose. Whatever makes you feel a sense of excitement to get out of bed in the morning, pursue it. That’s what centenarians in the Blue Zones report feeling every day. It doesn’t need to be something grandiose or glorious, it just needs to be something that you find personally meaningful.
- Strengthen your social ties. Family, friends, and a religious community are distinct types of social networks, and Blue Zone residents invest in all three. The strong and varied types of support and connections that these networks create are associated with a significantly longer lifespan (an estimated 7 to 17 years, just from family and religious ties). Even if you don’t currently feel connected to any particular social network, it’s never too late to create a new one. Volunteering in your community, signing up for a new class, or attending a spiritual gathering are just some of the ways that you might meet individuals with similar interests with whom you can build new friendships.
- Move. Centenarians in the Blue Zones incorporate gentle, natural movements like walking, gardening, tai chi, and routine housework into their day. This is not about working up a sweat or building muscle. They do not do strenuous exercise or go to the gym. The goal here isn’t a traditional model of fitness or strength, it’s just about moving your body as much as possible throughout the day.
- Drink in moderation (if at all). Though Loma Linda residents do not imbibe, the residents of all other Blue Zones do drink alcohol. Within the Blue Zones that consume alcohol, residents who choose to drink alcohol live longer than those who do not, showing us that there is something to this practice. The key is that they share a glass or two of red wine or sake with friends at the end of the day. They do not drink in excess, they do not drink sugary cocktails, and they always do it as an act of strengthening their social bonds.
Live Like a Blue Zoner
Individuals living in the Blue Zones practice diet and lifestyle habits that have big implications for their health. They live longer, healthier lives that stand out in sharp contrast to the rest of the world. Now that you know the secrets to their success, we encourage you to incorporate their practices into your own life. What Blue Zone habits are you already practicing (if you’re on the Bredesen Protocol, you likely have the nutrition part down!)? Celebrate those successes, keep living them, and then try to brainstorm strategies for how you might put the other practices into action. Start with the ones you know you can start fairly easily. Maybe it’s incorporating more walking into your day; perhaps it’s organizing more regular get-togethers with friends. Are there any you’re unsure how to get started on? Don’t be afraid to get your family, friends, and health practitioners involved in finding ways to live like a Blue Zoner!
- Buettner, D., Skemp, S., & Frates, B. (2016). Blue zones: lessons From the world’s longest lived. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(5), 318–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616637066
- In search of secrets: an interview with Dan Buettner, author of national best seller. (Interview). (2009). Vibrant Life, 25(4).
- Buettner, D. (2019). Foods to live by. “National Geographic,” (January 2020), 104-121.