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Chronic diseases are a common thing we see, especially as we age. And even though genetics play a role in your lifespan and susceptibility to various chronic diseases, your lifestyle possibly plays an even greater role. And lifestyle seems to be something that people living in the “Blue Zones” have mastered.
The Blue Zones are geographic areas throughout the world in which people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else. What interests everyone about them is the commonalities of people living in Blue Zones and why they live longer. So, let’s find out!
The 5 Blue Zones
The term “Blue Zones” was first used by an author named Dan Buettner. He was studying areas in the world where people live especially longer lives – which refers to a life expectancy of over 100 years. The word “Blue Zone” came about when Dan Buettner and his colleagues were searching for these areas and they were mapping everything out, using big blue circles to mark these parts of the world where people live to be really old. That’s where the Blue Zones name came from – quite the literal etymology.
In Dan Buettner’s book called the “Blue Zones”, he describes five known areas, which are: Ikaria, Greece, Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, the Nakoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and the 7th Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
Icaria, Greece, is an island where people tend to eat a very Mediterranean-rich diet.
Sardinia, Italy, is home to some of the oldest men in the world. They’re living in mountains, typically work on farms and drink wine.
And then in Okinawa, Japan, is where some of the world’s oldest women live. And – this is something that a lot of plant-based people know – they eat a lot of soy-based foods. Soy has been around for ages and is a popular food group in Okinawa, but they also practice meditation, tai chi and different forms of movement and mindfulness.
In the Nakoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, their diet is based around beans, corn and tortillas, but their daily lives also include a lot of physical activity.
And last but not least, the Seventh Day Adventists, a very religious group of people, typically live as strict vegetarians in tight-knit communities.
Those five locations throughout the world are the only areas discussed in Buettner’s book. But it’s possible that there are other areas in the world that could also be a Blue Zone, as these are just the ones that he actually studied. But what do they have in common?
The Blue Zone Diet
The Blue Zones eat a primarily plant-based diet, typically 95% or more stems from plants. And their diet is very rich in carbohydrates, specifically complex carbohydrates.
While not all of these people are necessarily strict vegetarians or vegans, as some of them do tend to eat meat maybe around five times per month, it’s only a really small part of their diet. Instead, their diet is heavily focused on plants, root vegetables and a variety of very colorful foods.
To be even more specific, the Blue Zone diets are typically rich in vegetables, which are a great source of fiber. They eat many legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas, which are full of fiber and protein. They also consume a lot of whole grains and nuts. So, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and specifically legumes really tie all of these regions together.
Everything in Moderation
Another thing that they have in common, and especially the Okinawans, is that they tend to follow the “80% rule”. This means that they stop eating when they’re about 80% full. They also savor their meals and spend a lot of time prepping and cooking them. Then they eat slowly whilst enjoying the company of other people they’re eating with.
A number of resources have shown that when you’re eating slowly, it can help reduce hunger and increase feelings of fullness compared to eating rapidly which can lead to eating past fullness. This actually aligns with intuitive eating, too.
Other than that, a lot of people living in the Blue Zones fast every once in a while, whether it’s for religious reasons or just as part of their lifestyle. But they are still intuitive, so they’re not trying to ignore their hunger cues or follow strict guidelines. When it comes to fasting, they’re doing it because they’re heavily involved in a religious practice or it’s just part of their lifestyle in general.
They also consume alcohol in moderation. That being said, there still is a lot of mixed evidence about alcohol consumption and whether it can reduce mortality when drunk in moderation or increase your risk for cancer.
In the Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones, as you can imagine, a glass or two of red wine is fairly common. And in Sardinia, the wine is actually made from grenache grapes, which have been shown to have extremely high levels of antioxidants compared to various other wines. To sum up, some regions tend to drink more than others, but it is consumed in moderation, not in excess.
Active Until the Day They Die
A lot of the Blue Zone people live in smaller communities. They’re neither very urban nor very population-dense. A lot of the foods they eat are locally sourced and part of the farm life, which makes them very fresh and delicious. In fact, a lot of the foods that they’re eating are handmade, which requires a lot of physical effort. According to Dan Buettner, this might be a factor which contributes to their longevity, as they are active – even at an older age.
And while they don’t actually go to a physical gym, activity is just built into their daily lives. They’re gardening, walking, hiking, farming, cooking and doing daily chores. They don’t live a sedentary lifestyle like many of us do. They’re naturally just active.
A lot of studies have shown the benefits of exercise and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and overall death and its ties to longevity. Integrating some form of movement that feels good is also something that we work on with our clients. It should feel aligned with them and be something that they can sustain potentially for a long time. And that’s what a lot of these regions are doing. It’s just part of their lifestyle, really, until the day they die.
Prioritizing Rest and Community
Apart from activity, rest also plays an important role for the Blue Zones, as they all get enough sleep. So, in addition to diet and exercise, Dan Buettner found that a good night’s rest is prioritized and is possibly contributing to them leading long, healthy lives.
But not only do they get adequate sleep, but in some of the regions, especially in Ikaria and Sardinia, they take what’s called a “siesta”. It’s usually a nap for about 30 minutes or less during the day.
It also seems that in the Blue Zones, people do what sounds like intuitive sleeping. They don’t have to go to bed at a certain time or wake up at a specific hour. They actually listen to their body and sleep as much as their body tells them to. So, when they wake up in the morning, they get up straight away. They don’t doze or stay in bed – because they are fully rested.
So, apart from resting, these five areas specifically tend to have a pretty strong religious tie and also a strong sense of community. Often families are living together, they live very close to one another, or they’re going to religious or spiritual events. This is particularly interesting if we compare it to the US, as, due to COVID-19, fewer communities like these exist or they stopped exercising during the pandemic. But apart from that, another thing that ties them all together is having a sense of life purpose – be that for religious reasons or others.
Live Like the Blue Zones
So, how can you set up your environment so that you’re doing some of these things that the Blue Zone people are doing? You can observe it and see how it can apply to you. It’s not about moving to these areas or giving up everything you do. It’s about finding ways to incorporate some of these practices into your own life.
Perhaps you are going to try and sneak in more daily activity – not necessarily exercise. Or perhaps find a community that you can connect with. Or you are finally learning to prioritize sleep. Whatever it is, the Blue Zones can really be a great inspiration to change your life for the better.
Now that you know what you can apply to your own life, and hopefully get similar benefits that these Blue Zone communities get to enjoy, it may be possible for you to add a few years to your life.
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