What can we learn from the Blue Zones?

Whilst in Lockdown in my little Brighton (well Hove actually) flat, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one dreaming of travel and worrying about the potential restrictions and concerns that might stop us jetting off to explore distant lands. I’ve been lucky enough to see some beautiful places in the world – but there’s been something tugging at my wanderlust in recent years of wellness journeying; The Blue Zones 

Life Span vs Health Span

With the amazing advancements in the medical world, we’ve been able to extend human life expectancy or ‘life span’ considerably – people are more or less living for longer – but are we living ‘well’? When asked, “do you want to live past 100?” People often say, “why would I want to do that?!”.  We envision getting old as being in pain, knocking back more & more medications, or unable to move, think and live like we do when we’re younger. But does it have to be like this? 

Health Span refers simply to the length of time when a person is alive and healthy. Focusing on this as part of longevity – living longer and better – is where the juicy work is. I love the quote ‘to die young as late as possible’. Chronic diseases mean health span decreases – cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes Type 2 and many other diseases are often influenced by our diet and lifestyle choices. But imagine by supporting your health and wellbeing, you can enjoy living life to the fullest until the end? Is it possible? Well, the Blue Zones shows us it is. 

Longing for Blue Zone Living 

The Blue Zones is a project that has taken Health Span and Life Span to a worldwide stage. They have researched and identified the world’s longest-lived cultures and most extraordinary populations to find out the secrets of living a long, healthy, happy life. 

Some of the original hot spots across the world include; 

  • Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world. 
  • Loma Linda, California – home of the Seven Day Adventists who use a 24hr sabbath to provide focus on family, connection, faith and nature.

So, what are the secrets of the world’s longest-living people?

Each Blue Zone has its own uniqueness, but they all have common denominators called the Power 9;

1. Move Naturally

Whether it’s walking the hills in Sardinia or gardening in Ikaria, people in the Blue Zones are far from power lifting in the gym or going crazy in a HIIT class. They are moving functionally and ALL THE TIME. Much less sedentary than our modern office lives – people in the Blue Zones live in environments that actually encourage them to move without having to think about it. 

How can you do this? Simple; inconvenience yourself. Take the stairs instead of the lift, walk to the shop instead of using a car, get off the sofa to get that drink instead of asking someone to bring it to you. Take stock of how long you are sitting for and match it to movement. 

2. Purpose

I love this one. In Costa Rica it is called “plan de vida;” In Okinawa it’s referred to as Ikigai; ‘meaning for life’ 

The diagram helps you to look at what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for. The spot in the middle is known as Ikigai. This ‘reason to wake up in the morning’ doesn’t just mean you live for work and then retire – the sense of purpose continues and grows. According to the research it is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. 

How can you do this? Now if you find that magic spot where your passion meets your career – that’s amazing. But, don’t feel bad if it doesn’t. What is important though is knowing what your passion, joy, bliss is and making time for it. Don’t let work steal that from you. Prioritise it. Include it daily in some way. Don’t know what it is yet? What did you love doing as a kid? Dancing, being outside, singing, drawing, baking – explore these things again and go from there. 

3. Down Shift 

The effects of stress on the body are now widely known. It’s a killer.  Creating the perfect storm from chronic inflammation associated with many diseases, ongoing stress ages us dramatically. Life stresses happen wherever you live, but what the Blue Zone members do is preventative stress management. Each day they factor in time to down shift; prayer, remembering their ancestors, taking a nap or in Sardinia… happy hour! 

How do you downshift? So many of us only consider how to chill out once we’re already stressed. The key however is to have a practice in place to work as a preventative measure. This helps to anchor you, bring you back to a calm state quicker, and use the stress hormones smartly (when you need them). My favourite is daily meditation, yoga, deep breathing or grounding. But it’s important to find what suits YOU.  

4. 80% Rule 

We were taught as kids to ‘finish your plate and then you can have a treat or leave the table to play’ – unfortunately that means many of us eat until we’re stuffed (me included!). But as Michael Pollen puts it ‘Eat food. Mainly plants. Not too much’ – tuning into your fullness cues is important to your overall health. So is giving your body a break from constant eating or snacking – it has other jobs to do too!  In fact, fasting is also a habit in some of the Blue Zones too.  The concept of eating until they are 80% full is key – “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old mantra reminds them to stop eating when they feel almost full. Blue Zone folk also eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day. This ties in with our body’s natural digestive rhythms too. 

How can you do this? This one is simple to implement to your own life. Chew your food slowly, put down your knife and fork in between mouthfuls and savour those flavours. Hoovering your food makes it impossible to tune into your fullness cues. 

5. Mostly plants 

Although most of the Blue Zones aren’t vegetarian, around 95% of their food comes from plants. Legumes, lentils, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices are the corner stones to their diet. These high fibre diets keep their colon tip top and their phytonutrient content high. Meat only appears about 5 times a month, fish sometimes more. This keeps nutrient levels optimal too. 

How can you do this? Although I eat oily fish regularly, eating meat a few times a month works for me (and my pocket) too. I find it keeps me feeling optimal and I can also make sure the meat I buy is always organic (which I certainly couldn’t afford to do if I ate meat every day!). If that doesn’t work for you, try to incorporate a couple of meat free days into your week.

6. Wine Time! 

Good news wine lovers, people in all blue zones (except Adventists in California) drink alcohol regularly BUT – here’s the kicker MODERATELY.  Moderate drinkers in fact seem to outlive non-drinkers. Their trick is to drink 1 glass per day with friends and/or with food – this part is important. The experience that comes with this seems to have as many benefits as the wine itself. And before you ask – no, you can’t save up all 7 glasses to have on Friday night. 

The beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption may depend on the type of alcohol and also the moderation part. Each study also showed that higher levels of consumption actually increase the risk of death. Red wine may be the best type of alcohol, given that it contains a number of antioxidants from grapes. One wine in particular has the highest antioxidants – Cannonau from Sardinia.

Personally, I love a glass of red but having it every night really disrupts my sleep. So, I tend to have at least 4 non-drinking days in a row to get the most out of my z’s 

7. It takes a village 

Social networks are incredibly important to each Blue Zone. We now know the science behind this. Even more key is having social circles that support healthy behaviours. Some studies show that your chances of becoming obese, giving up smoking or being depressed, are all influenced by how many of your close friends do these things. Furthermore, lonely people are 30 per cent more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. But happiness, positive thinking, active lifestyles and hugging is also contagious! In Okinawa they create ‘moais’ – groups of 5 friends that commit to each other for life. Who would be in yours? 

How you can avoid loneliness and embrace human contact? – Call whoever you are closest to – someone you don’t live with – at least once a week. Make an effort to contact others at least once a month. Schedule regular catch-up with friends – with food, without food, with wine, without wine, on the beach, on a couch – the point is the HUMAN.  Consider volunteering – I adore my weekly befriending visits for TTTB when I go and see Dee, an older lady who doesn’t have much social contact. 

8. Family First 

Older and younger people in the Blue Zones often live together. Studies have shown that grandparents who look after their grandchildren have a lower risk of death but also lowers disease rates in children too! They also commit to a life partner and invest in their children and wider families – giving time and love. 

Our ancestors always relied on ‘mentors’ – older generations who can teach us their life lessons and help us when we hit a bump in the road.

How can you do this? Get out there and talk to someone older than you without the frustration that they don’t know how to use an iPhone. They have plenty to teach you. Like I mentioned above, as well as talking to my wonderful family, I also volunteer for the Time To Talk Befriending service in Brighton – spending an hour or so having a cuppa and chat with my older friend Dee has been so incredibly valuable to both of us! They’re always looking for new volunteers as are other services around the UK.

9. Belief 

This is such an interesting one. Almost all of the Blue Zone members hold a faith of some kind. This sense of belonging and attending services regularly increased life expectancy up to 14 years! 

I really think there’s something in this. Denomination or labelling doesn’t matter. But opening your mind to an understanding or acceptance that something bigger than yourself runs deep within all of us, and everything is connected brings something to my life for sure. 

Are there parts of Blue Zone Living you’d like to do more of?

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