Ever heard of the Blue Zones?
It’s a term made famous by Dan Buettner in his 2005 National Geographic article The Secrets of Long Life.
The term grew out of his collaborations with demographic researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, and describes areas in the world, where people tend to live significantly longer than the average person.
The researchers used to mark their research regions of interest with blue circles – hence the name Blue Zones.
In 2009, Dan Buettner transformed the research into the bestselling book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest” (2009).
The 5 Blue Zones
In his research, Dan Buettner visited the regions in the world with the most centenarians, to try and find out what it was, that made these people live for so long.
During this research, 5 zones stood out as the ones with the healthiest inhabitants.
Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and Lomo Linda, California (The US).
The 9 health secrets
Within these 5 Blue Zones, Dan Buettner found a lot of common lifestyle secrets (or lessons, as he calls them) among the different populations, but 9 major ones stood out as the ones all populations in the zones lived by:
1. Moderate, regular physical activity.
People of the Blue zones are physically active. That does not mean going to the gym every day. What it means is being constantly moving and trying to exercise your body while doing daily tasks.
2. Life purpose.
Learning your sense of purpose requires life-long learnings. People in the Blue Zones try to be open to life’s successes and failures, and understand them as outcomes that need to be met for the greater good.
Okinawans for example, utilize a concept known as Ikigai, which is the Japanese word for “a reason for being”.
3. Stress reduction.
One of the primary rules for those living in the Blue Zones is to learn how to cope with stress. If stressful situations are overpowering your everyday life, this can disturb the body’s homeostatic system and cause serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
In extreme cases, stress can also alter areas of the brain and cause mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Ways to cope with stress includes social support groups and regular visits to your health care provider, getting regular exercise, breathing exercises, setting goals, and trying to relax and cope with difficult situations.
4. Moderate calorie intake.
In order to maintain a strong and healthy body, a moderate calorie intake is vital. According to My Plate, a United States Government health project, the average calorie intake for adults varies between 1,500-3000 calories a day, according to gender, size, activity and fitness.
5. Plant-based diet.
The majority of populations in the Blue Zones have a Mediterranean diet which consists mostly of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, seeds, spices, fowl, fish and lean meat.
6. Moderate alcohol intake.
According to researchers, light to moderate consumption of alcohol-related products such as wine, champagne, beer and other alcoholic beverages, may provide a couple of benefits to the overall health, such as cardiovascular problems reductions.
But being physically active and maintaining a healthy diet are shown to have greater health benefits in the long run.
7. Engagement in spirituality or religion.
Spirituality and religion are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and quality of life.
People that use spirituality or religion to cope with challenges and failures have a mindset that always emphasizes the greater good, no matter how dire their own circumstances are.
8. Engagement in family life.
Inhabitants in the Blue Zones engage in social support and family-oriented practices since childhood.
They learn that their choices and outcomes will have an impact not only on themselves, but also on their families. They want to live and grow together and share their lives’ successes and failures with their families.
9. Engagement in social life.
Just like family, other forms of social ties affect our health as well. Human beings need different social relationships in order to function probably.
Physical contact from simple actions such as holding hands, to more intimate forms of contact such as sex, assist the body in releasing hormones that decrease stress symptoms.
Intimate relationships play a big part, and the primary one, marriage, has numerous health benefits.
Studies have shown that married couples have better cardiovascular health than singles, and that they always seem to care for and encourage better health in their partner.
Do all of the health secrets for a very long time
But according to Buettner, it wasn’t just the 9 health secrets that made the difference.
What made the difference was that they did all the things for a long enough time.
In other words, the longer you apply the 9 health secrets to your own life, the longer you’ll live.
One of the other common denominators between the Blue Zones are the climate. None of the Blue Zones lie in polar or in temperate climates.
All have a Mediterranean, tropical or subtropical climate, and these climates mean a lot for the populations outdoor lifes, their mental healths and their access to local produce.
Another denominator is that the Blue Zones are located in stable and safe societies, meaning that social unrest isn’t a yearly occurrence, and that access to clean water, proper sanitation and medical care is provided, thus decreasing the stress of not getting the basic human needs fulfilled.
A happy ending
It’s fair to say, that people living in the Blue Zones have lives that seem more at ease, more peaceful and meaningful, because they have more time and energy in their every day lives, compared to those living a high-paced big-city life, working 8-16 and trying to maintain an acceptable work/life balance.
But people in the Blue Zones also seem to have happier endings.
Instead of becoming ill from one or more chronic diseases, spending their last months in a nursing home or in the hospital, they live in their own home until they are well over 90, ending their lives most often peacefully in their sleep.
Blue zone lifestyle vs. big city lifestyle
And the Blue Zone lifestyle clashes with modern city-life in several ways, because it is for the most part a life where family, tradition, local cuisine, hard work and moderation are keywords.
The question that comes to mind is:
Can these health secrets be transferred to a modern big-city lifestyle?
Some of them might but applying all of them for a very long time while still living the big-city life, seem difficult.
The magic of Icaria
Of all the blue zones, the people from the Greek Island of Icaria seem to embody the Blue Zone lifestyle most consistently, which make them ideal for comparison.
As described in his book, a study of the Icarians conducted by Dan Buettner and his research team uncovered the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet.
Nearly 1 out of 3 people on the island make it to their 90s, and furthermore, Icarians have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia.
Their way of life and the big lifestyle gap between old and young generations, and between the lifestyle of mainland Greeks and Icarians, is perhaps best illustrated in the documentary Little Land (2013) by Nikos Dayandas.
The challenges of adapting to the Blue Zone lifestyle
In Little Land, the filmmaker follows a young group of Greeks who settle on the islands due to problems from the financial crises.
They try to adapt to the sustainable and self-supporting way of life on Icaria, only to discover that what they thought was a dream existence wasn’t so easy, because living the way Icarians do, implies the need for certain virtues and competencies that not everyone has.
The documentary documents the Icarian way of life, and the enormous differences between that life, and a modern life in Athens, and even though you might think you know those differences, you’ll be surprised how big they are.
Watch the trailer for Little Land on Youtube here: