Blue Zones: Health habits from the healthiest regions

Dan Buettner’s book ‘The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest’ gives us a peek inside the lifestyles of the world’s healthiest regions.

Internationally known author, researcher, and explorer Dan Buettner has travelled the world researching the living habits of the world’s longest-lived. He’s noted patterns of behaviour that suggest there are practices we can adopt to help us live well, for longer. In this second edition, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest has been updated and expanded to include the newest ‘Blue Zone’ — Ikaria, Greece. Read on for his discoveries on how we can adopt these lifestyles as our own to prevent the rush toward old age:

The Blue Zones

1. Get regular, habitual physical activity. This model doesn’t push a gym membership — it’s about routine activities you add into your everyday life that you’ll maintain in the years to come. Gardening, walking, hiking and completing chores are all found to be among daily activities of the elderly in The Blue Zones which include Nicoya, Costa Rica and Okinawa, Japan.

2. Eat your vegetables. And then eat a few more. Many of The Blue Zone diets include large servings of plants and vegetables, with lower (and healthier) protein intake. Buettner noticed that “beans, whole grains and garden vegetables are the cornerstone of all these longevity diets.”

Dr. Leslie Lytle, a dietician with a PhD in health behaviour, confirms the healthfulness of lowered protein consumption: “extra protein gets converted to calories, and if not needed for activity or to maintain our bodies, it eventually becomes fat.” She notes that for adults, only 0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight are needed daily.

3. It’s about moderation. These communities not only eat very healthy diets, they also practice portion control – in Okinawa, Japan, Buettner notes that eating until you’re no longer hungry, rather than until you’re full, is common among older residents.

4. Keep busy. Maintaining a sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfillment was crucial to the individuals Buettner spoke with. A pillar of living well in old age, particularly in The Blue Zones, is feeling needed and having a purpose-filled lifestyle. Buettner finds that whether in Japan or Costa Rica, the idea “essentially translates to ‘why I wake up in the morning.’”

5. Find a method of daily stress relief. A support network, whether it’s a group of friends, family, or within the community, can be a way to build security, arrange regular social activity, and make sure you’re regularly decreasing stress (and its effect on your body) in your everyday life.

6. Make sure you get enough vitamin D. It makes substantial contributions to your immune system, blood pressure, and lowers the risk of many age-related diseases.

One of Buettner’s experts, Dr. Greg Plotnikoff, notes that an insufficiency increases “our risk for nearly all age-related diseases including many types of cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and even auto-immune diseases like MS.” This isn’t a reason to go all-out on tanning though – Buettner notes that 10 to 15 minutes of sun, twice a week is enough to meet your body’s needs.

7. Naps are good for you. Out of the newest Blue Zone (Ikaria, Greece) the practice of an afternoon nap supports findings that those who take a regular afternoon break can “have up to 35 percent lower chances of dying from heart disease.” Regular napping (30 minutes, three times a week) has proved to reduce a person’s risk of coronary heart disease, Buettner notes, which “may be because napping lowers stress hormones or rests the heart.”

8. The Blue Zone behaviours can travel. There are natural elements that provide people in these zones with unique advantages — the hills in Sardinia naturally make walking a better workout, and the extra calcium in the water in Costa Rica’s zone easily supplies residents with the vital mineral. But in all zones, longevity appears to be primarily a result of positive patterns of behaviour that have been maintained over time.

9. Try adding Blue Zone foods to your diet. Buettner recommends red wine (in moderation), nuts, water, and vegetables as part of a healthy lifestyle and all are easy to come by in his studied regions.

Tofu, widely eaten in Okinawa, is referred to as an “almost uniquely perfect food: low in calories, high in protein, rich in minerals, devoid of cholesterol, eco-friendly, and complete in the amino acids necessary for human sustenance.”

10. Minimize negative habits. Smoking, fast food, stress, and sleep deprivation are all harmful — even more so when done in large amounts, over long periods of time. These habits rush you into aging prematurely, and detract from your overall well-being. Also significant is that they can prevent you from adopting healthy habits: “the biggest threat to improving our lifestyles has been cigarette smoking,” according to Dr. Robert Kane, and Buettner reminds us that “in addition to the damage done to internal organs, smoking also prematurely ages the skin and makes people look older.”

The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from The People Who’ve Lived the Longest, is available now.

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