What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are specific regions in the world in which statistically people live longer, healthier and happier lives.
Blue Zones include the following regions:
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
- The province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy
- Faith-based community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
The term was coined by Dan Buettner with the help of his research team who traveled to these particular areas of the globe. Studying the lifestyle characteristics of the people living in Blue Zone locations they discovered the way in which they practiced a way of life resulting in the Blue Zone phenomena.
Blue Zone areas have an incredibly high concentration of centenarian individuals, who live over ninety and one hundred years of age. The aging population remains active well into their eighties and nineties. In addition, these communities remarkably have the lowest rates of chronic diseases and illnesses that are ever present in Western society as we come of age.
The longevity of a persons lifespan is 20% dictated by our own genetics, however, the way in which we choose to live our lives and our environmental influences significantly impacts the result by 80%. Our lifestyle is a largely emphasised reasoning as to why people living in Blue Zones have better health and live longer.
In today’s overwhelming “health and wellness”, diet or exercise crazes it is understandable why people are inclined to select from certain health bandwagons that are not sustainable, resulting in fad fatigue. Most westernized civilizations are after that life-enhancing quick fix that has been proven over and over again that it is short lived. In no way do these behaviors for a short period of time sustain over a lifetime.
Despite the fact that it may seem as though you are at a disadvantage not living in one of these Blue Zone regions, you don’t have to pick up your whole life and move to a foreign country in pursuit of the “fountain of youth”.
As discovered in these Blue Zone communities it truly comes down to their environments dictating their lifestyle. It is simply how you choose to design your lifestyle and implement healthy daily practices over a lifetime to increase longevity.
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5 Blue Zone Countries
Amongst the five Blue Zone countries, at first glance may not appear to have much in common. Their lifestyles may differ slightly yet the people of Blue Zones are generally not affected by globalization due to their locations. These regions are relatively remote, warm year-round, and close to the ocean. The five regions that are identified in the book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest are living lives of longevity and the people collectively are happier and healthier.
The province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy
The province of Ogliastra is based on the beautiful island of Sardinia amongst the mediterranean. It boasts more male centenarians compared with anywhere else in the world. Its ratio of centenarian men to women is one to one. Considering the rest of the world in comparison is five women to one man, it is quite a tremendous feat.
With its mountainous landscapes the community of shepherds walk an average of five miles or more a day. The nature of the land promotes regular physical activity providing positive cardiovascular benefits without the notion of a gym membership.
Sardinians exceptional longevity is also attributed to their commonly referred to Mediterranean diet which is predominantly a plant-based diet. Their diet consists mainly of what they can harvest from their own land such as vegetables, olive oil, wholegrains, goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese. They eat a low protein diet and if meat is consumed it is perhaps only once a week or reserved for special occasions.
Lastly, the age old controversial debate as to whether a glass of wine a day is actually good for you? The Ogliastra men drink up to 1-2 glasses of Cannonau wine a day. However, this wine has the added benefit of being home made from grenache grapes that are known to have three times the flavonoids and polyphenols as other wines.
On the small Aegean island of Ikaria, residents outlive most of us by more than a decade. Ikarians experience half the rate of heart disease, cancer and dementia. Ikarians also downshift by taking time for a mid-afternoon break. People who nap regularly lower stress hormones by 35% resulting in decreasing their chances of dying from heart disease.
Health researchers also attribute the Mediterranean diet as a determining factor as to how Ikarians have kept most chronic diseases at bay. The Ikarian diet is rich in olive oil, homegrown vegetables, fruits, goat’s milk, beans, and wholegrains. Similar to their Sardinian neighbors, Ikarians eat small amounts of meat products. Drinking tea with herbs such as sage and marjoram is a daily practice along with drinking locally produced wine in moderation.
In addition, most Ikarians are Greek Orthodox Christians, a religion that dictates they fast for several periods throughout the year.
Okinawa, Japan is a subtropical island with beautiful beaches and weather creating a calm and relaxing environment. The inhabitants of Okinawa, Japan have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world and is home to longest living women who live an average of ninety years of age.
The South Pacific island lends itself to a plant-based diet practiced by all five of the Blue Zones. The Okinawa diet includes soy-based foods, garlic, sweet potato, turmeric, green tea and shitake mushrooms. Residents eat something from the sea and land everyday with fishing being a common activity.
Okinawans also attribute their longevity to the importance of how they eat. The 3000 year old Confucian mantra is said before every meal “Hara, Hatchi, Bu”. This is a reminder to stop eating when 80% full. The smaller plates in which dishes are served is also an added reminder to avoid overindulging.
Okinawans keep physically active everyday incorporating a meditative form of exercise.
Their longevity is also associated with their social circles. Moai is the Okinawa tradition of forming social support groups at a very young age that will see these relationships throughout their lives providing financial, emotional and community support. There isn’t a literal translation for moai but in layman’s terms is a friendship group.
Lastly, ikigai ‘the reason for which you wake up in the morning’ is ever present in their outlook in life. Family holding a strong sense of purpose.
Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
West of Los Angeles is Loma Linda, California, home to the highest concentrations of Seventh-Day Adventists. 150 years ago the faith was founded by Ellen G. White and now the religious group of people are known to live roughly 10 years longer than the rest of Americans. The community as a whole do not prescribe to drinking, dancing, smoking, television, media and share ritualistic lifestyle habits.
Their diets differ depending on their culture and geography but they share the collective attributes of the “biblical diet” inspired by the Garden of Eden. Seven-Day Adventists in Loma Linda follow Genesis: Chapter one, Verse 29, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food”. Their diet is focused on locally grown vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and drink only water. Most church members eat meat or fish sparingly or if at all adhering to a mostly vegetarian diet. Drinking water is essential with at least six to eight glasses a day. Seventh Day Adventist abstain from refined sugar instead eating from natural sources such as fruits like dates or figs.
Many of the Adventists of Loma Linda exercise regularly. They have an active social life with their purpose in life being that of family and spirituality. The strict importance of Sabbath weekly is adhered to and they practise this downshift for 24 hours every week over a lifetime. This reduction in stress, active lifestyle and focus on social networks and faith has shown to increase the communities longevity.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
Nicoya, Costa Rica boasts superb sandy beaches, exotic wildlife, and its residents have the lowest rate of middle age mortality. Defying the limits of age, this region of Central America has the second highest concentration of male centenarians.
The people from Nicoya eat simple and light from local produce with little to no processed food. Costa Rica has an abundance of tropical fruits packed with antioxidants and vitamins, such fruits include papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms. Given Nicoyans often reach the ages over 90, the fact that many known ‘superfoods’ such as mangostan, aloe, ipecacuana, soursop and rambutan are grown across the country is incredibly advantageous to their longevity in life. The Nicoyan diet is also a combination of beans, squash and corn tortillas providing protein and essential amino acids. In addition, their calcium and magnesium rich water helps prevent heart disease and promotes strong bones.
The Nicoya elders hold near the belief of plan de vida, or reason to live, which blesses them with a positive outlook and purpose on life. They have deep social networks and faith with family playing a strong role within the Nicoyan culture. Lastly, the people from this region remain active well into later years.
“Power 9” Blue Zone principles associated with living a long and healthy life
Incorporating moderate, regular physical activity naturally as part of their daily routine.
Down Shift, reduce stress
80% rule, moderate caloric intake
Moderate alcohol consumption, specifically wine
Engagement in family life
Enjoy an active social life
There are a number of lifestyle factors that contribute to the longevity of people living with Blue Zones. Although Blue Zone regions can be found across the world from one another, they share common elements that influence how long they live.
Factors other than the obvious diet and exercise play important roles to the overall wellbeing of individuals and living an enriched lifestyle. After Beuttner studied the Blue Zone populations, his team found nine evidence-based common denominators. Known as the “Power 9” these lifestyle factors have shown to be associated among all the world’s centenarians influential in promoting longevity within Blue Zone regions.
1. Move Naturally
The world’s longest living people live in environments where physical activity is required and built into their daily activities. Whether it be walking amongst their rural landscapes, gardening in their locally grown vegetable patches or cooking the old school way removing the modern luxuries of mechanical conveniences.
Moving regularly throughout the day is more beneficial than only setting aside a block of exercise each day around long predominantly desk-bound or seated activities. The Western society, especially white collar occupations are crippled with long periods of sedentary activity with studies suggesting that sitting is the new smoking.
People living in Blue Zones are not exercising in the westernized version of the task. Their activities are instead simple forms of physical labour. They haven’t replaced things with convenience, their lives are just naturally set up for physical activity. In an effort to “improve” and increase efficiency to our westernised lifestyle, we’ve neglected to acknowledge the benefits of our seemingly “first world problems.”. The easiest option is not always the most beneficial route in the long run.
Regular, moderate, physical activity has proven time again that the health benefits are countless. Being in constant movement and being physically active whilst doing daily tasks releases chemicals in the body known as neurotransmitters which promote endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. People in Blue Zone aren’t going to the gym, training for marathons or weight lifting, instead fitness for them is simply incorporated into the way they live their life.
2. Life Purpose
People in Blue Zones have a keen sense of life purpose and practise the psychology of well-being. The reduced risk of death can possibly be associated within the positivity of learning ones sense of purpose. Residents of Blue Zone regions live meaningfully with the affirmation of enriching ones life. It could be a life-long journey leading to a happier and healthier life.
Some regions are able to articulate this sense of purpose. The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida“, both loosely translating to “why I wake up in the morning”, “a reason for being” or “life’s plan”. Activating this life’s worth mentality creates a clear sense of purpose and has shown in Blue Zone regions to be advantageous to their life expectancy, adding meaning to their life and those of others.
3. Down Shift
Downshift is an improved quality of life that reduces stress and appears to be important for living a long and healthy life. Stress in our daily lives is inevitable and serves its purpose within our natural instincts when preparing for threats or when needing to be on high alert. Although generally, most stress in life can and should be avoided as its overpowering impacts can lead to serious health problems, such as chronic inflammation, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
Stress is a part of life, but Blue Zone centenarians have incorporated aspects of their daily routine that aid in shedding stress. Some stress-relieving rituals are exhibited by the Adventist praying, the Okinawans taking a moment everyday to remember their ancestors and the Sardinians enjoying a glass of red wine.
The Ikarians listen to their bodies and de-stress by taking a nap. It is common in some Medditerranean countries to partake in a traditional “siesta” during the day. Keeping in mind the length of a beneficial nap or “siesta” must be 30 minutes or less, no more, to be advantageous.
Lastly, people in Blue Zone regions have sufficient amounts of sleep which studies have shown seven hours to be optimal.
4. 80% Rule
People in Blue Zone areas follow the 80% rule and stop eating when their stomachs are four fifths full. They abstain from overeating and do not continue to 100%. This encourages moderate caloric intake, which could prevent weight gain and chronic diseases.
Eating purposefully and slowly allows for the 20% gap and can increase feelings of fullness as opposed to eating rapidly. This is due to the hormones that make you feel full only taking full effect 20 minutes after eating.
The Okinawans recite the Confucian mantra of “hara, hachi, bu” before every meal to remind them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. People living in Blue Zone areas often eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or evening.
Periodic fasting also appears to be present in Blue Zone regions amongst religious communities. Intermittent fasting involves fasting for certain hours or days of the week periodically or consecutively. These fasting periods have shown to play a role in weight management, lowering cholesterol and other chronic diseases. The Ikarians are typically Greek Orthodox Christians who have fasting periods throughout the year during religious holidays.
Both reduced calorie intake and fasting are common practices in Blue Zone regions.
5. Plant Slant
Within a Blue Zone diet, the most common dietary factor is that these regions are plant-centric and eat a predominantly vegetarian diet. On average meat is only consumed perhaps once a week or reserved for special occasions.
The Blue Zone diet consists of local produce, even homegrown vegetables and fruits from their own harvested land. Many of the Blue Zone regions live off the land and are not consuming packaged chemicals or processed foods.
6. Wine at 5
Blue Zone regions consume a glass of wine or two a day, except for Loma Linda, California (Seven Day Adventists). It is common to drink in moderation with friends and family around food.
Although, the beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption is dependent on the type of alcohol. Red wine, specifically wine made from particular grapes such as Grenache grapes have shown to have extremely high levels of antioxidants, compared to other wines. Antioxidants are known to fight free radicals and prevent damage which may be important in longevity.
7. Right Tribe
Engagement in social life has shown to affect our health in aiding against depression, decreased stress, cardiovascular diseases and other disorders. The right tribe and positive community has shown to support healthy behaviours. People in Blue Zones have strong friendships and social bonds which in turn bring about positive chemical hormones for mental and wellbeing health.
Loneliness has many negative affects and is influential on our health and mortality risk. Blue Zone inhabitants are instinctively aware of this which is demonstrated with the Okinawans having created moais. Moais is a social network in which individuals are placed into from a young age, groups of friends that are committed to each other for life. An opportunity for support, interact, to talk to and share life with. The correlation between long-lived people and their social networks have favorably shaped their health.
8. Love ones first
It was found that those living in Blue Zones keep family very close. They may even live in multi-generational houses where the grandparents often live with their families. These close-knit families recognise that their life choices and outcomes not only impact themselves but also their families. Whether it be successes or failures they grow together and weather the storm as a family.
There is a real emphasis on loved ones and having strong family connections. Relationships are strengthened with love and closeness which encourages the kids to care for their aging parents and the cycle repeats. Studies have even shown that grandparents who often play or are nearby grandchildren have lower risk of depression and death.
Centenarians also commit to a life partner with the human experience being central to a sense of belonging.
Blue Zones are typically engaged in spirituality or religion. Belonging within faithful communities can add up to 14 years of life, with reduced rates of depressions and stress.
Most of these cultures take time to rest and reflect through rituals or prayer as opposed to being in constant flight-or-fight response which studies have shown that may trigger cardiovascular diseases and even Alzheimer’s.
Simply practicing in daily meditation, focus with creative outlets or introducing a technology detox can help quiet and center yourself. Involvement in spirituality is often associated with a positive quality of life.
Blue Zone Books
There is an abundance of informational books available from Dan Buettner along with beautifully tasting cookbooks available for purchase online.
The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest
The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100
The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People
The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People
The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest
Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way