What do Ikaria in Greece, Loma Linda in California, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan and Nicoya in Costa Rica all have in common?
Dan Buettner and the National Geographic found that these were places in the world where people lived longer and more healthy lives than other places in the world. Heart disease, Alzheimers, Dementia and Cancer all occurred at lower levels, if at all, than in other segments of the population and Buettner and his colleagues became curious about why.
It turns out that there are 9 factors that people living in what Buettner went on to call Blue Zones have in common.
9 ways to encourage health and longevity
Our western life style of sitting in a car, then sitting at a desk then going to the gym before sitting in front of a screen is the opposite to the life style of people in Blue Zones. In these areas, life is mobile and movement happens accidentally as part of everyday living.
Gardening, walking, mixing a cake by hand, carrying shopping and in Japan, sitting on the floor and getting up again many times a day were simple movements that meant that people were constantly and routinely active. In Blue Zones there is activity called 'exercise' which was done discretely, life is active and movement an integrated part of living.
What does this mean for us? Walk more, move more, sit less, drop the gym, walk to work, start gardening.
Simply put, people in these areas have something to get up for in the morning. We tend to think of purpose as some grandiose mission we are here to complete, but a sense of purpose is simpler than we expect; having a garden to tend to, a dog to walk, friends to see, grandchildren and children to care for are all reasons to continue living, they give life purpose and meaning.
What does this mean for us? Stop looking for the big, 'change the world' meaning in your life and look at what you have that gets you up in the morning each day, take care of living things, connect to nature and each other.
Life in the Blue Zones is slower. People take naps, they sit around playing dominoes, watching the sun set, watching children play. Friedman and Rosenham; stress researchers, found that Type B personality people were less likely to be stressed and suffer from the physical symptoms of stress. It seems that people in Blue Zones seem to live in Type B way (relaxed, easygoing, non-competitive, reflective) rather than a Type A way (driven, competitive, time pressured, hate to fail).
What does this mean for us? Stop, meditate, snooze, do less, rest more, take time to stop and stare
Many of the Blue Zones not only eat a plant based diet, they also use herbs and spices such as oregano, mugwart, turmeric, and ginger in their drinks and their food, making the most of natural anti-dioxidants and anti-bacterials.
What does this mean for us? Why not grow your own mint, or lemon balm or rosemary and make your own herbal infusions (and add in natural movement and purpose to your day). Eat more fresh fruit and veg. Cut out processed food. Cut down on meat.
Eat to 80%
Some Blue Zones fasted as part of their religious traditions, but all of them made a virtue of stopping eating when they were only 80% full, preventing over-eating and allowing for the fact that we don't experience satiety until some 20 to 30 minutes after we have eaten
What does this mean for us? Eat mindfully so you stop before you are full. Eat smaller portions on smaller plates. Consider having days when you skip a meal.
Yes, they did drink wine, a little, and as part of their social life.
What does this mean for us? No more binge drinking, no more vodka shots, no more downing a bottle of wine in front of the TV after a hard day at work. Instead have a glass of wine with friends, with your cat, take your time, savour it as you drink.
Whether it is to a religion, a political party or a village, people in Blue Zones have a higher sense of belonging, of feeling connected to something bigger then themselves.
What does this mean for us? Take the time to get to know your neighbours or go to church. Make sure you have a group of people you connect with regularly.
Even our southern Mediterranean cousins in Spain and Italy do this better than families in the UK. Take a walk in a park in Rome or Madrid on a Sunday and you will see whole family groups; grandparents, aunts, cousins, children and grandchildren. Family connection prevent isolation and loneliness for us all. Parents have help with their children, grandparents have younger people to help them with the things they can no longer do.
What does this mean for us? Spend more time with your parents, your siblings, your children. Get to know your wider family. Arrange family gatherings just for fun rather than waiting for the next wedding or funeral.
Our tribe are the people who really 'get' us. Who understand us and who we share values and attitudes with. These are the people we laugh with and can call in the middle of the night when life hits the fan. People in Blue Zones have close friendships, people they have known since childhood, people they can really be themselves with.
What does this mean for us? Make time for your friends. Look up old friends and re-connect. If you're feeling lonely, start doing things you love to do as that's where your tribe will be.
As I sit on holiday writing this in Greece, I see this lived out in front of me. Older people treading water in the sea and chatting with each other. Salads, games of chess, older people carrying bags of shopping, walking hand in hand at sundown, connecting with their families.
The things that our culture encourages us to value; status, success, material wealth, competition just do not figure at all in what makes for a healthy and happy longer life. It seems that we have a lot to learn from the Blue Zones.