They are called blue zones – places in the world where people live longer and healthier than anywhere else on earth. Several of these blue zones exist, and in each of these places people living to 90 or even 100 years is common. And they aren’t just living long either – these people are living healthy – without medication or disability.
Five blue zones have so far been identified and thoroughly researched by journalist Dan Buettner in a partnership with National Geographic during more than five years of on-site investigation. So what is the secret to longevity and health underlying these fascinating communities? Do they possess modern technology, do they take massive amounts of supplements, do they run on treadmills, do they have special genes? As you may have guessed, the answer is none of these.
The five blue zones are as follows:
The Italian island of Sardinia
Loma Linda, California
Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula
Ikaria, an isolated Greek island
Its Lifestyle, Stupid!
So lets cut to the chase instead of building up the suspense any further. After more than five years of investigation, what has Buettner discovered about why people in these places are living so long? The secret is lifestyle. Quite simply, these people live a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, daily exercise, and a low stress life that incorporates family, purpose, religion, and meaning. Sure we can go into more detail, and we will, but at a high level it really is this simple.
Although it may seem hard to achieve this lifestyle, the absolute simplicity and power of it should actually be refreshing and uplifting. People are always thinking that complicated medicine and expensive modern technological therapies are required to live long and healthy. But it simply isn’t so. The gift of a long and healthy life is already in the hands of each and every one of us. It is up to each of us to choose the lifestyle of health, and sadly most of us are choosing not to live that lifestyle. To each his own.
Pollute Your Body And It Suffers – Imagine That!
So lets get into a bit more detail. First off, what do we mean by a healthy diet? A healthy diet, according to mountains of literature, and now supported by blue zone investigation, is one that is loaded with vegetables, fruits, fish, and nuts and low on meat, sugar, fat, and the toxic processed foods of modern civilization. Buettner actually goes into even more detail, highlighting red wine, goats milk, local teas, and several other aspects of blue zone diets that seem to be beneficial. Sure you can get all precise about it if you want, but my take is that the exact details, such as red wine, are not so important. What is most important is the high level theme of generally eating good stuff (fruits, veggies, fish) and cutting out the bad stuff (meat, fat, sugar).
Your body is a living biological machine. Is it surprising our bodies suffer when we stuff them with inflammatory, chemically destructive diets high in saturated fat and sugar? The literature shows that heart disease and diabetes can often be almost 100% attributed to a lifetime of obesity and poor diet. It has been documented in thousands of trials and scientific studies that the incidence and severity of several major diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s, can be severely restricted by a healthy diet.
People in blue zones eat healthy diets, and not surprisingly they suffer from these major diseases either less frequently or not at all. That means they live longer and healthier. According to Beuttner, in blue zone Ikaria the people suffer from one half the rate of heart disease and 20% less cancer than Americans and there are more healthy people over 90 than anywhere else in the world.
Work That Body…or Watch it Wither
A daily routine of regular exercise is another theme that is common across all blue zones. Wait a minute you say – I don’t see treadmills and fitness centers in the remote Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica. But that is just it! The people in blue zones don’t need to artificially incorporate exercise into their lives with machines. The exercise comes for free, already built into their daily lives naturally. Common across all of the blue zones is that the people climb mountains, walk through the hills, work the land, and generally use their bodies in a constant grind as they perform their daily activities. And it doesn’t have to be high intensity “run as fast as you can” exercise either. Often the exercise is slow and relaxed, but ongoing throughout the day. These people are using their muscles, burning calories, and circulating their blood. Their bodies are tough and healthy, conditioned by the daily routine to be fit and alert. Ready to fight disease. Quick to break down toxins and waste.
Buettner shows us a man in his 90’s who actually bests him in an arm wrestling match…
Especially in America, when we see those rare individuals that actually make it to 90 years old, they are often frail and weak, hunched over in wheelchairs and propped up with countless medications. Not so with the individuals in blue zones. Buettner shows us a man in his 90’s who actually bests him in an arm wrestling match, and this is not just a special case. The individuals who are reaching 90 or even 100 years old in the blue zones are often able to live active, normal, medication free, mostly healthy lives all the way to the very end. Its an amazing revelation, and it gives hope to all of us that we too can live healthy in addition to living long.
But to live long and healthy you have to earn it! You have to work your body everyday, or nearly so. Sit around all day and let your body turn into a low efficiency, low energy, low impact carcass and you can kiss your health goodbye. Your bones will weaken, your muscles will wither, toxins and waste will accumulate. Use it or lose it.
A Happy Low Stress Life – Now Who Doesn’t Want That?
A life of low stress and filled with happiness. In theory most of us want this, but in reality few are achieving it. Buettner has found that those who live long and healthy in the blue zones unanimously live low stress, happy lives enriched with strong family ties, a sense of purpose, and a healthy dose of spirituality, and plenty of sleep. Unlike the straightforwardness of eating healthy and exercising, this third pillar of a healthy lifestyle is hard to precisely define. How do we measure stress? How do we measure happiness? Can one go to church once a day, once a month, or not at all and still qualify as spiritual?
Although the specifics may be hard to define, I think at a high level we all should be able to grasp the point. If we are generally happy with our place in life then we behave in ways that promote longevity and health. We are more likely to take good care of our bodies and our bodies are more often flooded with hormones and chemicals associated with happiness and health.
Stress is especially proven through mountains of data and studies to have serious harmful effects on the body. Cortisol, the hormone in our bodies produced in response to stress, is especially harmful to the body. Those that are living a life constantly full of stress, anger, and resentment have high levels of cortisol constantly flowing in their bodies. The long term effects of this are dramatic, increasing blood pressure, and generally increasing the onset and severity of heart disease and several other major diseases.
So Its Just Lifestyle Then?
Is it really that simple that the secret to longevity and healthy is nothing more than lifestyle? No magic pill is needed? No advanced machinery is needed? The answer is yes!
Living long and healthy is not mysterious. It is not hard to understand. It is a choice. And sadly most people are choosing wrong. If you are already living the blue zone lifestyle then good for you! Keep on doing it! If you aren’t living the lifestyle, then it is never too late to start. Several studies show that dramatic improvements in longevity and health can return to an individual very soon after correcting a bad lifestyle.
Living long and healthy like people in the blue zones is not achieved through shortcuts or quick fixes. You can’t workout hard on Sunday and then sit on your butt Monday through Saturday. You can’t say you are eating healthy just because you stick a bunch of “healthy” vegetables on top of that “unhealthy” greasy pizza. You can’t repent spiritually one day and expect to erase the damage of decades of stressful decisions and anger.
To live long and healthy requires a constant, daily lifestyle of positive enrichment for the body and mind. For many this may seem hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Find ways to make healthy food taste good. Find ways to make exercise a meaningful part of your daily routine rather than a burdensome chore. Surround yourself with others that share your interest in living a full life that is low in stress, happy, and meaningful. Get plenty of sleep.
This article appeared on Singularity Hub on 20 July 2009